While preparing for the PIAA Championships would unnerve some athletes, it’s the realization of a dream for McKenzie Gustas.
“Getting to play in the PIAA tournament is the way I always dreamed I would be ending my high school golf career,” Gustas gushed.
Gustas and her Hickory High teammate Sasha Petrochko are primed for the individual PIAA Championships beginning Monday at Heritage Hills Golf Resort and Conference Center in York. A week later District 10 Class 2A champion Hickory will compete in the state team championships. Gustas and Petrochko will be joined by Luciana Masters and Ava Liburdi.
Recently at The Country Club in Meadville, Petrochko emerged as the D-10 medalist (besting North East’s Swan sisters, Lydia and Anna) while Gustas finished 4th. It was the program’s 2nd district team title. Also included was an 11th consecutive regular-season region championship.
“The crowning moment of this season – and perhaps my career – was capturing not only the team, but the individual District 10 trophy,” Petrochko related. “Our district has tremendous golfers, and to be able to win is a huge confidence-booster.”
This past summer Gustas emerged as medalist at the annual Herald-Tamie Invitational. She also is Tam O’Shanter course record-holder for females, having shot a 66 on Sept. 10, 2020.
“This season I definitely went into it with confidence as I knew our team would most likely be the best team at Hickory, probably ever, with our top four all playing tournament golf over the summer, which is not something girls high golf teams ever see,” Gustas began.
“I know, for me, playing in a tournament almost every day over these past three summers has definitely been the factor that prepared me for the District 10 Championships this year,” Gustas continued. “I started out this season not as well as I hoped due to problems with my driver and some putting mistakes, as well. But I was able to fix these throughout the first couple weeks of the season and finish with a 73 (strokes-per-round) average this season.
“Looking back on the season I’m still amazed by some of the scores I was able to post, such as the Tam O’Shanter record (6-under par 66) due simply to the work I put in every day leading up to our season – and throughout our season,” Gustas added.
At the D-10 Championships Petrochko posted back-to-back rounds of 70 en route to her individual title. She became just the 2nd Hickory High female golfer to garner the crown (Rosy Hearns, 2012). She said last year’s disappointing runner-up berth to North East served as motivation for this season’s success.
“All year we had a really strong team and it was quite a disappointment last year to not make it to states with the team we had,” reflected Petrochko, a sophomore. “I think that made us all the more laser-focused (on the D-10 tourney’s opening day) because we wanted so badly to have that opportunity to play at high school golf’s biggest event.
“This year,” Petrochko continued, “we have so many good players, and we push each other to get better at the game – and be better people. I, myself, was so motivated that I was playing for more than just me; that it was for the team.
“Coach Antush has not only helped the team grow, but has helped me grow individually. He is great at the mental side of the game in that, whenever I have a bad hole, he always encourages me to bounce back and put a smile on my face,” Petrochko added.
Gustas echoed those sentiments:
“After COVID and the struggle with North East last year it made this dream so much greater. Qualifying as a team with (rounds of 70-75-77 at the D-10 Championships) just showed the tremendous dedication and work our team put in to achieve this goal. and as an individual qualifier being able to come back with a 74 the following day after a tough 77 the day before felt awesome,” Gustas admitted, adding,
“But, also, there was some disappointment, being that I shot a two-day total of 71-76 last year (plus-3) – shooting less and I didn’t qualify due to the COVID restrictions on (the number of players who (qualified for 2020 states).”
Hickory’s proud program is at the place where it is self-sustaining as the in-house competition sharpens every golfer’s skill-set.
“The competition between the Hickory girls golf team has been pushing me to be the best I can be since I was a freshman,” Gustas observed. “I remember going to the state championships as a freshman (when Hickory ended 3rd as a team), very nervous playing as our four-spot. Fast-forward to today and I’m playing in our one-spot as a senior and I’m very confident going into states with my team.
“Having the opportunity to go into states with confidence, instead of those nerves I had as a freshman, comes from the previous experience I’ve had at states (7th as a sophomore as part of the team runners-up), and the commitment of thousands of practice hours I had to put in over four years to be playing at the level of our highly competitive team today.
“Coach Antush played baseball in college at Alabama and he coaches for the (minor league baseball Mahoning Valley) Scrappers today,” Gustas continued. “These are obviously very competitive environments, and I think with coach having this experience it definitely helps our team because he knows how much a team has to put in to be successful at a high level.
“Coach also tells us after significant wins to keep the memory of it short-term because going into the next event we can be overly confident and make silly mistakes.”
Petrochko paused to express gratitude to her support system.
“I would like to start by thanking my parents, friends, my swing coach, teammates, and Coach Antush. None of my accomplishments would be possible without them,” she emphasized, continuing, “As a team I would definitely like to take the state championship as I know one hundred percent our team is capable of it.
“Of course, our goal as a team is to win states,” Petrochko said, “and as long as we stay focused and encourage one another, I truly believe anything is possible.
“As an individual I am not hoping for any specific place. If I play to the best of my ability and play the whole, entire round with a good mental game I know I’ll meet my expectations, and a well-scoring round will come,” Petrochko concluded.
Tam O’Shanter’s John Kerins noted Gustas is a third-generation linkster – “Her grandfather played in two leagues at Tam O’Shanter for more than 30 years. This may be where she gets her passion!”
That, plus her work-ethic has given Gustas some giddy-yap heading to state.
“I’m very confident going into the PIAA Championships,” Gustas began, admitting, “my recent rounds have been very bad compared to how I ha(d) been playing.
“On Sept. 28, I shot 73 at the Meadville Invitational Tournament,” Gustas recalled. “I started out my round 4-over within the first four holes. However I was able to battle back to plus-1. With only one other bogey the whole, entire round on number 18. On October 2 when I shot a 74 I was (minus-1, 71) heading into number 16 where I finished bogey-bogey-bogey. Our round was very slow – around six hours – so I think I was a little fatigued the last couple holes.
“Each round is different, and as you can see I started off not well one day and finished poorly another day,” Gustas mused, quickly adding, “Golf is about 18 holes, not nine or even 17 holes. These (last) couple weeks I’ve definitely work(ed) on my mental game to prepare me for states.
“Golf has been a long road, but a very successful one for me because of the time and effort I put into it,” Gustas concluded.