St. Joseph’s opened its doors in 2011 with just 38 students — and few, if any, dreamt of fielding a playoff-caliber athletic team anytime soon.
But, six years later, the St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy golf team has a legitimate chance to follow the lead of the girls’ cross country team to win a state title. As the District 6 Class 2A champ, it’s headed to the District 5-6 sub-regional Thursday.
Led by junior Jack Mangene, who sports a 4 handicap, SJCA been plowing through its competition all year long. The Wolves have played against more than 50 schools and their only loss came at the hands of Altoona, which has an enrollment of nearly 7,800 students. St. Joseph’s now has 156.
Almost every school St. Joseph’s has competed against this season is much larger — but the team could care less about that.
“It’s a new school, a small school and a private school. You get this feeling of us against the world, and it’s cool to be David instead of Goliath sometimes,” athletic director Chad Walsh said.
Walsh and assistant athletic director Richard Ciambotti are serving as the team’s interim coaches this season because the previous head coach, Adam Corson, stepped down after last season.
The team’s original coach before Corson, John Muto, will be returning to the team next year. In the meantime, rather than hiring an interim coach, Walsh decided to take on the main coaching duties himself, and he’s getting plenty of help.
St. Joseph’s alumnus and current Penn State student Garrett Bastardi recently turned professional, but he comes to practices to help the team whenever he can. Jim Litrun, a teacher at St. Joseph’s, also helps out from time to time. A priest, the Rev. John Gibbons, who is a scratch golfer, comes to a few practices a year to offer pointers.
“I felt really good about the decision to not hire somebody new,” Walsh said. “I knew we had the support from Garrett and some other people in the community that I knew would come out and give these guys some technical help, and all these guys really just need the mental push and that’s what I give them.”
Walsh said he didn’t quite expect the team to perform so well this season — but the players saw the breakout year coming.
“I have kind of a cocky mentality so every year I kind of expect to be the best team,” Mangene said, “and this year it’s actually happening. “It’s pretty surreal.”
Mangene is the team’s No. 1 player. He’s a confident and aggressive golfer who never lets his head take him out of the round, the coaches said.
Matt Steyers joins Mangene to make up the team’s 1-2 punch. The coaches say Steyers is as consistent as it gets on the course. He rarely gets himself in trouble and knows where to miss.
Both Mangene and Steyers consistently shoot in the 70s, but it’s only been that way for a short period of time. Last year they seldom found themselves under 80, so they made golf a priority over the summer.
The team created a group chat to stay in communication and plan out four rounds per week in the offseason. Every player came back this fall a few strokes better than the year before.
Steyers said a big part of the team’s motivation to improve came from a close loss last season.
“I remember last year we lost to State High by three, and that really motivated us for this year,” he said, “because it showed us we can compete with the bigger schools and beat them.”
Earlier this season St. Joseph’s avenged its 2016 loss and beat State College in an individual match.
Aside from Mangene and Steyers, the rest of the team drastically improved from last season. The top four of Mangene, Steyers, Ryan Peachey and R.J. Marsh can now all shoot under 85 on any given day.
The Wolves failed to make it past the sectional tournament last season with virtually the same roster. This year they won by 13 strokes.
A few days later St. Joseph’s won the district tournament by 10 strokes to move on to sub-regional. Mangene also qualified individually by placing in the top 8.
The team continues its state title chase Thursday against Rockwood, the District 5 champion.
“We’re looking to shock the world every day,” Mangene said. “We’ve done it throughout the season. We beat State High and we won sectionals, and we’re just going to compete until we can’t anymore.”
Jack Dougherty is a Penn State journalism student.