VASSALBORO — Cody Rizzo didn’t see any of it coming for the Gardiner golf team. Not the undefeated regular season, or the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference runner-up spot, or the strong showing at the state qualifying tournament.

“I didn’t think so, to be honest,” he said. “I thought we’d be worse than last year.”

Instead, it was an impressive fall for the Tigers, one that for some is still going. After leading Gardiner to a spotless 10-0 record in the regular season, second place in the KVAC Class B, the top score at the KVAC state qualifying tournament and sixth place in Class B, Rizzo, Cam Bourassa and Drew Kelley will finish their seasons Saturday in the Class B individual tournament at Natanis Golf Course.

“I definitely tip my cap to the players,” coach Chad Hopkins said. “The boys showed up at the right time. … It’s a fantastic feat.”

Hopkins said each of his three qualifiers brings their own approach to the game.

“Cody is, pound for pound, the most dominant player from tee to green (on the team), and when he putts well, he’s pretty darn good,” he said of the senior, who made the tournament with an 80 at the qualifying tournament on Oct. 2. “We worked on controlling ball flight (Thursday), and that way he knows what his go-to shot shape will be. If he puts that in his bag and improves on the putting green, I have high hopes for him (Saturday).”

Bourassa, who shot 82 to qualify for the individuals, only started playing in his freshman year but quickly showed a knack for the game. Kelley, a smooth-swinging sophomore, shot 85 to qualify for the second straight year.

“Inside of three years … (for Cam) to shoot scores in the 30s, to break 40 weekly, is fantastic. It’s almost unheard of,” Hopkins said. “I think (Drew’s) only lost one match this season. … He made a lot of progress at the end of last year, which then launched him into the states. … That’s fed into this season as well.”

The Tigers this season got off to a good start and never slowed down, beating quality teams in Erskine, Waterville and Nokomis along the way. A key for Gardiner was its depth, as the Tigers were able to consistently fend off teams that had aces at the top of the ladder but thinned out in the matches down the order.

“Cam and I (were) consistent and then the 3, 4, 5 and 6, any day they could have a good day,” Rizzo said. “That helps a lot. (One) day we had, I think it was our fourth man shot 44. That boosted us.”

Bourassa said the streak didn’t enter the players’ minds until the last match of the regular season, when Erskine came close to toppling the Tigers.

“We were 9-0, and it didn’t matter if we won or lost, we weren’t going to change seeds,” he said. “But it was just the satisfaction, ‘We want to go undefeated. Let’s do it.’ That’s kind of when it set into our minds.”

The Tigers also had a proven coach in Hopkins, a Golf Academy of America graduate and former playing professional, who helped Bourassa, Kelly and Charles Stevens reach the individual tournament in his first season last fall before repeating the feat this year.

“Coming into (last year), I didn’t really know who I had. I didn’t know any of the players, their abilities,” he said. “You can’t teach the same swing to two completely different types of physical people. Each person brings their own element to each swing, and you have to connect with them mentally too.”

“He wants us to shoot well, but if we don’t, he’s not down our backs,” Rizzo said. “He’s good. He’ll help you out on the range, putting green, everything, but he’s definitely a mental coach. Once you have a bad hole or something, he’ll get you right back up.”

Hopkins’s knowledge of physical technique and the mental game helped his players continue their upward trend — one that led to Rizzo, Bourassa and Kelley turning in resilient rounds in cold and wet conditions at Natanis to qualify for the individual tournament and help the Tigers return to the Class B state tournament.

“I’m very pleased with our team,” Bourassa said that afternoon. “Usually KVACs is where we’re able to shine and kind of show what we’ve got out on the course.”

Rizzo shot an 80 the next week at the state tournament, but Bourassa and Kelley slumped to a 94 and 98, respectively — though Hopkins is confident all three will be on their games today.

“We had a great week of practice, I worked with all three individual boys on at least one if not two of their weaknesses each, and we made some great strides,” he said. “I’m very, very excited to see them put our work into play tomorrow. Hopefully we knock off a few strokes tomorrow.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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