As Sayville senior Mike Nadeau crouched to his knees to line up his 20-foot putt on the ninth hole of Timber Point Golf Course's White Course, he couldn't stop thinking of the significance.
If he could two-putt, in a match against Islip on Oct. 9, he would tie a school record.
On the inside, nerves began to flutter, his heart pounded, his putter felt heavy in his hands. Yet this feeling was not unfamiliar; the star golfer had felt some variation of it many times. In fact, everything leading up to the biggest putt of Nadeau's high school career felt almost routine.
With a cool, outward determination, he putted within inches of the cup and tapped in for the finishing touch on his 4-under 32. It was the lowest nine-hole score in Suffolk County this season (in relation to par) and tied a Sayville school record for a nine-hole score in a league match, coach Sean McLaughlin said.
It is gutsy performances like Nadeau's at Timber Point that McLaughlin has come to expect from his players on the Sayville boys golf team, which posted a 12-0 record in the fall season and won its League V tournament by 39 strokes on Oct. 15.
In practice rounds and in drills, the eighth-year coach knows there is no way to artificially recreate the nerve-wracking, in-the-moment feeling Nadeau encountered before he putted for history. But McLaughlin has made it his job to ensure his golfers come as close to that feeling with every shot they take in practice.
"Everything I do in practice is to recreate that nervousness in their hands," McLaughlin said. "You can go out with your buddies in practice and shoot a great number, but there's no pressure there. It doesn't mean anything unless there's something on the line. We always have something on the line.
"No matter what we're doing, whether it's on the course or in practice, everything's a competition. We're never just sitting around hitting balls. So what you're left with is a group of competitors who know how to deal with the nerves."
The "everything's a competition" mentality had already helped yield success before this season. In the spring of 2014, the team won the Long Island championship. In spring 2015, Sayville lost the county title in a tiebreaker.
But when spring 2016 comes around and the Golden Flashes have another crack at a championship in May, all bets are off for this year's team.
"We won a Long Island championship two years ago with a team that had probably half the talent we have now," Nadeau said, "and that's not a knock on the 2014 team. That team was great."
How, exactly, has McLaughlin taken a group of gifted golfers and chiseled them into gritty competitors? Perhaps the quintessential example is the weekly intrasquad playoff he conducts to determine seeds leading up to the week's match.
"You don't see many high school teams do it," senior Brendan Hazelton said. "You actually see playoffs going on more in college teams."
Added sophomore Brendan Smith: "For us, it's the most competitive day of the week."
Nadeau, who averaged 37.2 strokes per nine holes this season, won the playoff and team's No. 1 seed about half of the time this fall, McLaughlin said. But Smith (37.1), Brendan Haselton (38.5) and his younger brother, sophomore Sean Haselton (37.5), all earned the top spot on multiple occasions. Even the team's No. 5 golfer, sophomore Matt Danielson, earned the No. 1 once.
That's the thing with this year's team -- up and down the roster, the talent is outstanding, and on any given week, it's anyone's guess who will be operating out of the No. 1 slot for Sayville.
"What I found really crazy," Brendan Haselton said, "was that I'm a senior, and I shot an even par 36 one day during a playoff, and I'm actually playing as the No. 4 the next match. I'm not even playing in the top 3 because three guys shot a 1-under 35. They shot a great round. They just played a little bit better that day. It just makes you want to give it your all, and this isn't even a real match against another team."
It's friendly competition, the players will tell you. When they're not swinging golf clubs, this group is as close as can be. But make no mistake: when they're duking it out for No. 1, proving themselves becomes top priority.
"They're happy when a teammate plays well, but at the same, they'll get pretty upset if they don't win that No. 1 spot," McLaughlin said. "They pretty much walk off, throw the clubs in the back of mom and dad's car, slam the trunk and say 'Let's go.' And they're not happy, because they know they have to play two, three or four that week."
McLaughlin said he implemented the playoff system about three years ago in an effort to stave off complacency. "Everything in golf is borrowed," he tells his players. "You never own it.
"I know I've got four golfers that are all capable of winning a county title," he said. "So I have to figure out a way to keep them motivated."
McLaughlin's approach as a golf coach has been molded by his wrestling background. A county champion for Babylon in 1990, wrestled at the University at Buffalo. He returned to Babylon in 1999 to coach the wrestling team before joining the Sayville golf program in 2006.
"In wrestling, you wrestle-off every week for your spot," McLaughlin said. "I kind of took that and applied it here. I know that pushing each other makes you get better, keeps you sharp."
His players have completely bought in. Now, there is no circumstance too daunting, no moment too big for them. Any trepidation or nervousness or frustration they might encounter in a match, they have already experienced, to some degree, in an intrasqaud playoff or competitive practice round.
"I feel like everybody works hard," Nadeau said, "but once you get to a certain level you have to find a way to separate yourself from everybody else. And this is how we do it at Sayville. There's never a day when we get to practice and just kind of lay low. We're always fighting. We make every single shot matter. So we're prepared for everything."