BUTTE — Montana Tech golfer Sean Benson recently recalled that his late coach Lee LaBreche offered him a challenge when the pair first met during Benson's campus visit in 2015 — qualify for the NAIA National Tournament, and LaBreche would buy him a steak dinner.
When LaBreche passed away on Feb. 22, Benson decided he'd still purchase that dinner if he fulfilled that challenge. One steak for himself, one in his coach's memory.
Benson now has a decision to make: Rare, or medium-rare?
Carrying a generous lead into the final round of the Frontier Tournament on Wednesday at Papago Golf Course in Phoenix, the senior stayed steady under pressure and carded a 1-under 71 to win the conference championship by six strokes and punch his ticket to the national tournament while becoming the first Montana Tech golfer to win the Frontier Tournament.
Benson concluded the three-round tournament with a 4-under 212 and was the only golfer to end under par. He logged four birdies and three bogeys in the last round.
“Lee was the only thing that was going through my head," Benson said. "I won in pretty dominant fashion and don’t think I’ve won with that kind of margin. The only thing I can think is Lee definitely pushed me, helped me through this whole week.”
For Sean Ryan, Montana Tech's interim golf coach, watching Benson pull out the biggest victory in program history was especially meaningful knowing how special it would have been to LaBreche.
“I was standing right off the 18th when Sean putted out," Ryan said. "I started crying mostly because I knew Lee was watching down. He had seen Sean play great. I miss Lee more than anything but it was really cool to see the team play so well for him.”
The moment was equally powerful for Benson.
"I kind of held back the tears," Benson said. "I was trying to keep it in. I looked at Sean (Ryan) and said 'Hey, I'm the one who's supposed to be crying.'"
Benson spent the first three years of his high school career with Billings Senior chasing the State AA title before claiming it his senior year. To win the Frontier title his senior year with Tech was serendipitous.
"It's the Sean Benson way," he said with a chuckle.
Rocky Mountain's Reece Nilsen improved his final round by six strokes to take second place (218) and Providences Cielak shot an even 74 all three rounds to claim third at 222.
Tech teammates Sean Ramsbacher and Trey Hoagland finished tied for 10th at 232 to give the Orediggers three Top 10 finishers. Hoagland trimmed seven strokes off his second-round score to finish the final round at a 1-over 73.
In the men's team tournament, Rocky Mountain College placed four in the Top 10 and edged Tech by eight strokes after leading the Orediggers by two strokes after the second round.
In the women's tournament, Lewis-Clark State's Marissa Louder secured an automatic bid to nationals after topping Rocky Mountain's Eryn Ellis in a playoff hole after the two finished the third round tied at a three-day total of 232.
Ellis and teammates Hayden Flohr, Morgan O'Neil and Anna DeMars finished in 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th respectively as the Battlin' Bears locked up the team bid to nationals with a three-round total of 968. LC-State finished in second (996) and Montana Tech took third with 1093.
The 2019 NAIA National Golf Tournament will be held May 21-24 at Las Sendas Golf Club in Mesa, Arizona.