Salazar’s sterling final round pushes Norman over top in Class 6A
By John Tranchina
OWASSO – With the team and individual races very close entering the final round of play at Bailey Ranch on Tuesday, it took an extraordinary effort from junior Sebastian Salazar and his Norman teammates for each of them to emerge as Class 6A state champions.
For Salazar especially, he picked a great time to win his first high school tournament. After entering the day tied for fifth, just two shots back of the leaders, Salazar shot a 2-under par 70 to finish with 215, edging out Edmond North’s Parker Sands for the individual championship.
Salazar and the rest of the top finishers were presented their awards by professional golfer Talor Gooch of Midwest City, who is in town for the LIV Tulsa event and took a helicopter from Cedar Ridge to Bailey Ranch to surprise the 6A golfers.
Salazar is just the second boy from Norman to ever win the individual title, joining Bob Stephenson in 1969.
“It feels awesome, it’s a really great feeling to win, first high school win coming at state,” Salazar said. “It’s my first season here at Norman High and it’s been a great ride. It feels awesome, all the hard work paid off.”
Salazar’s total also helped Norman shoot an impressive 293 for the day, helping the Tigers jump up from fourth place, seven shots back of the lead, into the top spot to claim the title, the school’s first ever boys championship.
“It’s a testament to the guys, they started the year back in August, working out,” said Norman coach Gregg Grost. “They felt like we didn’t play as well as we could have last year when we hosted at Jimmie (Austin Golf Club in Norman) and finished (fifth), so they coined their own phrase, which was ‘unfinished business.’ We didn’t play quite as well as they wanted to during the course of the season; we kept getting close and not winning. So we came in here, it came down to them trusting in the process, believing in themselves and believing that if you work hard enough, sometimes you get rewarded and they did.”
In addition to Salazar, two other Norman golfers finished among the top 10, as Dennon Norman and Quinn Robertson each tied for 10th at 225. Grost was particularly proud of Norman, who entered the final round tied for 23rd but shot a 71 to jump up the leaderboard.
“Dennon has been the rock and soul of this team all year, he sets the tone in everything we do in terms of how he works, and he went out today and he shoots a 71 the last round,” Grost said. “He putted bad the first two rounds; yesterday, he just couldn’t get the ball in the hole. Today the ball went in the hole.”
The top of the individual standings were extremely close heading into the third round, with Sands, C.J. Phillips of Edmond Santa Fe and Enid’s Mason Haley maintaining a three-way tie for first at 143, with defending champion Grant Gudgel of Stillwater one stroke back and Salazar and Norman North’s Josh Stuart tied for fifth at 145.
“I just wanted to go out and make some putts,” Salazar said of his mindset going into the final round. That was key on this golf course, greens weren’t perfect so it all came down to putting. I did that, struggled mid-round but managed to make some putts at the end. I knew I was close, heading into 18. After the front nine, I shot 2-under on the front nine, I knew I was in a good spot. I struggled on the back nine but fought it back to 2-under again. I knew I was close all the time.”
Grost was proud of Salazar, a dual citizen who was born in Oklahoma City but lived in Venezuela before moving to Norman before the season and having to deal with adjusting to a new culture.
“Sebastian is an outstanding player, he’s been on the cusp of playing really well for about the last four weeks and then he puts out a 66 in the second round at Enid, and just his confidence soared,” Grost said. “And today, he was in complete control of what he was doing. He stayed with the process, he stayed with the game plan and never varied and he won. He came into a whole new world, he was accepted just immediately and he’s as Norman High as any of those boys over there. It’s been tough for him and his family, but he’s done a great job.”
Sands was disappointed to end up second but was still happy with his performance.
“The iron game was not great today,” said Sands, who shot a 71-72-73 for a total of 216. “A couple just started off line, just not where I wanted and the putting, putting is just tough on these greens, it’s just rough. But it ended with a hole-out eagle, so there’s nothing to complain about there.”
Sands said he didn’t really feel any pressure from entering the day as one of the leaders and he tried not to pay too much attention to what the other contenders were doing throughout the day.
“You know, I’ve been in a lot of situations and I didn’t feel much of the pressure, but it’s always there,” Sands said. “It didn’t really get to me. I always take a deep breath before every swing that matters. I try not to look (at how the others are playing), even though I could. I kind of get a sense of what’s happening around me. I am bummed out that I didn’t come in with the win, but Sebastian Salazar had a great round today so I can’t take that away from him.”
Salazar was finished considerably before Stuart and Gudgel were done, and waiting to see if they might catch him was difficult. In the end, Stuart shot a 72-73-71-217 to finish third, Phillips placed fourth with a 70-73-75-218 and Gudgel and Haley finished tied for fifth at 219.
“Maybe 45 minutes of just waiting. It was stressful and I was feeling anxious, but just patience,” Salazar said. “It was really anxious, but I’m really thankful for everything.”
As for Gudgel, Stillwater coach Scott Morris said they could re-run this tournament 100 times and Gudgel would finish in the top five every time. He placed third in the East Regional last weekend, one stroke back of the co-winners.
“What’s amazing about Grant is that’s about as poor as he’s played all year and he’s such a good player that even when he’s playing poorly, you don’t even hardly notice it because he’s just so solid,” Morris said. “His weaknesses are so minimal, so that just speaks volumes of the level that that kid can play golf and his mindset for the game is just hard to put into words, really. He’s so competitive and he just relishes the intensity of the highest moment of the competition. A lot of people shy away from that, but that’s what makes him better. It just goes to getting a putt to fall here or there, or a ball that’s two inches out of bounds versus two inches inbounds. There’s just no margin for error like that, you’ve got to get some breaks to go your way.”
Stillwater, which won the East Regional last week, entered the final day with a three-stroke lead in the team standings at 601, with Owasso three back, Norman North six behind and Norman in fourth with 608. After shooting an outstanding 293 in the final round, Norman was the leader in the clubhouse at 901 and had to wait it out while Stillwater, Norman North and Owasso completed the tournament.
In the end, Stillwater came in with a 306 for a three-round total of 907 and the runner-up trophy. So for Salazar, the anxiety level was through the roof as he awaited both the team’s fate and his own.
“It was twice the stress, team and individual, it was tough,” Salazar said. “We were losing by three when we finished, but Stillwater had plenty of holes still left and it’s a tough finishing stretch so we knew we had a chance when we finished.”
Morris was impressed with what Norman accomplished but was still proud of his own team.
“First and foremost, you have to respect what Norman came in and did, they really played well,” Morris said. “They’re playing their best golf at this time of year, which is a credit to Coach Grost and how he runs his program.
“As far as our guys, really proud of them, the season they had was remarkable. I think we won seven tournaments and finished top two or three in the couple that we didn’t win. They really grinded all year and put themselves in position today and just came up against a tough team in Norman. Golf is pretty fickle and we just didn’t do some things like we needed to, didn’t get a few breaks that we needed and that’s just how things happened. But it doesn’t take away from a great season, a great career from those seniors. I was really super-proud of them.”
Norman North coach Ryan Rainer had similar praise to heap on his cross-town rivals, while acknowledging that his team just didn’t quite do enough, while shooting a 305 in the final round, to win.
“The results aren’t what we wanted but first, kudos to Norman High because 293 today is one hell of a round and I told them so,” Rainer said. “That’s a great tournament, a great comeback and I’m super-proud of those guys. We don’t like them when we compete but a lot of them we’re friends with, so super happy for them.”
After winning their first-ever state title last year and looking like they were on track to repeat after claiming the West Regional last week, Rainer thought his team was well-prepared.
“Our results aren’t exactly what we wanted, we didn’t do as well as we had hoped,” he said. “We had some good momentum coming in, we had a good strategy in place for how we wanted to play the course, just at times we didn’t do our best in executing, which is part of golf. I think we did a pretty good job of bouncing back from the mistakes we did make, I just think we made too many mistakes, as far as making big numbers. That really hurt us. We didn’t minimize damage as well as we could have. We picked up one shot on the leader (at the beginning of the day), Stillwater, so we hung in with them, but Norman High just did a great job going out and kicking tail today. They deserved to win.”