USGA MEN'S STATE TEAM
Vartelas, Flaherty Carry Connecticut to Two-Stroke Lead September 29, 2016 | Birmingham, Ala. By Scott Lipsky, USGA

John Flaherty's even-par 71 helped Connecticut build a two-stroke lead over Pennsylvania heading into Friday's final round. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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Geoff Vartelas fired his second consecutive under-par round on Thursday, putting him at the top of the individual leader board. More importantly, Vartelas’ fine play lifted Connecticut into sole possession of the lead heading into the final round of the 12th USGA Men’s State Team Championship at the 7,162-yard West Course at the Country Club of Birmingham.

Connecticut, which was one of four teams to share the 18-hole lead yesterday, sits at 3-under 281 after two rounds, two strokes in front of Pennsylvania, the only other team under par, and three ahead of Arizona. Five other teams are within five strokes of the lead.

The 22 year-old Vartelas, like his teammates John Flaherty and Chet Hrostek, is playing in his first Men’s State Team, but that has proven to be a non-factor during the first two days of competition. After opening with a bogey-free 3-under 68 in Round 1, Vartelas, who began his second round on hole No. 10, got off to a slow start on Thursday, dropping a pair of shots during his first seven holes. He rebounded with a 3-under 32 on his second nine, including a pair of birdies over his last three holes.

The play of the recent Penn State University graduate has been complemented by that of Flaherty, who was the second counting score once again with an even-par 71 in the 3-count-2 format.

While Connecticut has never won this championship, the team does own  four top-10 finishes since the biennial event’s inception in 1995, but none better than sixth place in 2003. That doesn’t seem to be a concern for the trio from the Constitution State.

“Geoff and I play at the same club, so we’ve been talking about it for a couple weeks. We’ve always said we had a good shot of playing well and competing if we both play our games,” said Flaherty, 23, who just concluded his collegiate playing career at the University of Connecticut. “[On Wednesday] after a good start we knew we were going to be here all week if we just kept playing well.”

Pennsylvania, the 2009 champions, climbed the leader board thanks in large part to the play of someone who just left the college ranks. Chris Crawford, a three-time All-Colonial Athletic Association honoree for Drexel University, followed up a 2-under 69 on Wednesday with a 1-under 70 in Round 2, joining Vartelas as the only competitors to produce two sub-par scores.

For much of the day, Crawford, who is now on Drexel’s coaching staff, didn’t have the most impressive round on his team. That distinction belonged to 2015 U.S. Senior Amateur champion Chip Lutz, who was 3 under thru 15 holes before running into trouble on Nos. 7 and 8, his 16th and 17th of the day, and ultimately posted an even-par 71.

Justin Tereshko's 3-under 68 on Thursday put North Carolina within striking distance of 36-hole leader Connecticut. (USGA/Chris Keane)

“I feel like I leaked some oil at the end and let my guys down,” said Lutz, who is competing in the Men’s State Team for the first time since 2001. “I played steady and hit some great shots, so I was pleased with that part of my day, but my score didn’t really reflect what I was hoping to get out of it.”

While everybody else in the top 6 was battling it out at CCB on Thursday afternoon, Arizona was safely in the clubhouse after posting 2-under 140 in the morning wave, thanks to 70s by Ken Tanigawa and Cory Bacon. The squad, which sits at even-par 284, has been playing on the opposite side of the draw from most of the leaders throughout the championship, and it hasn’t bothered them.

“We talked about last night that we were the [third] best team in the afternoon wave [in Round 1],” said Bacon, 26, who made four birdies on his first seven holes Thursday, three by way of putts that were 15 feet or longer. “We figured we could go out there and post a good round and let the afternoon teams see if they could stay where they’re at.”

A quartet of players fired 68s on Thursday, the low individual rounds of the day. The most impactful was the one by North Carolina’s Justin Tereshko, who helped the Tar Heel State rise from a tie for 12th to a tie for fourth, four strokes behind Connecticut.. Tereshko was 5 under thru 10 holes, and credited his ball striking for his good play.

“When you hit it really close it’s kind of hard to miss putts. I’ve struggled putting the last two days but my ball striking has been so good that I’ve been able to get away with it,” said Tereshko, 26, who is trying to help North Carolina win its first Men’s State Team title. The team tied for second in 2003 and 2010. “It was real nice to see North Carolina on the leader board, I just kept thinking, our team needs me to keep it up. Unfortunately I stumbled a little bit but it looks like we’re in good position heading into tomorrow.”

Minnesota and Michigan are tied with North Carolina at 1-over 143, while Washington and first-round co-leader Missouri are another stroke back in a tie for seventh.

A total of 23 teams made the 36-hole cut, which reduced the field to the low 21 teams and ties. Among the notable teams to miss were host state Alabama and New York, which featured reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Stewart Hagestad.

Delaware’s Jay Whitby, who finished 36 holes with an aggregate score of even-par 142, will compete in the final round despite his team missing the cut, as he is within five strokes of the individual lead held by Vartelas at 4-under 138.

The United States Golf Association conducts the USGA Men’s State Team Championship on a biennial basis. It features teams of three players from all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Eighteen holes of stroke play are conducted over three days, with the two lowest scores of the three individuals counting as the team’s score for the round.

Scott Lipsky is the manager of websites and digital platforms for the USGA. Email him at slipsky@usga.org.

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