FORT COLLINS — Hunter Paugh had been here before.
Last season, the Fort Collins golfer was leading Class 5A's boys golf state tournament after the first day. But, after holding a one-stroke lead with a score of 69, he shot 77 on Day 2, and finished third.
On Tuesday, Paugh was in the same position — leading after Round 1 — although his 67 was a more comfortable four-stroke lead over teammate AJ Ott and three others. And yet, Paugh felt the pressure early and had a double-bogey on the seventh hole. Soon after, his lead was only one stroke over Ott and Regis Jesuit's Andrew McCormick — 2-under to 1-under — through 10 holes.
That's when the senior, poised and seasoned, rose to the occasion. He birdied the 11th and 12th holes, giving him a three-shot lead, then he played sound the rest of the way.
It was enough to clinch his first state championship with an even 71 round, giving him 138 total, four-under, and a three-stroke victory over Ott. (Find complete results here.)
"Last year I posted a really good first round," Paugh said. "I started off pretty solid, but the rest of the second day I just didn't do what I needed to do. But that gave me good experience going into today. I knew I wasn't going to let it go this time."
After his early nerves faded, Paugh was right in his comfort zone and it's easy to see why as he was playing at his home course, the Fort Collins Country Club.
"There came pressure with knowing the course, but I feel like it was an advantage knowing the greens, knowing where to hit the ball and where not to hit the ball," he said.
"He knew where he needed to land the ball, he knew where he wanted it to be for his next shot, his putts, and how the greens would roll," Fort Collins coach Kyle Tregoning said. "He played the course today and he didn't worry about the other guys that were out there."
Paugh, a University of South Dakota commit, felt overjoyed to put the finishing touches on a fantastic career for Fort Collins. He was a four-time state qualifier, on top of back-to-back top-3 finishes.
"Winning state is big for anyone, but after last year — having a chance at it, but I didn't get it done," he said. "Going into this year at my home course, I've been expected to play well. I filled those expectations. It's a cool feeling."
His teammate, Ott, capped his career as a four-time top-10 finisher at the state tournament. He will continue his golf career as a Colorado State Ram.
"AJ, he's one of the best players I've ever played with or played against and he's a great friend, as well," Paugh said. "I knew if anyone was going to get it done and have a shot at me, it was going to be him. It's always fun playing against him and it's cool to be one and two at state this year."
The individual champion was, for the most part, decided long before a team was crowned.
The day began with a two-way tie atop the standings as Lakewood and Regis Jesuit both shot 6-over on Monday. Fossil Ridge was third at 8-over and Coronado, the defending team champions, was fourth at 10-over.
Pretty quickly the Cougars — who returned all four golfers from the 2014 title team — made a major push up the standings. They even took a commanding five-stroke lead over Regis at one point, but it was still early. The Raiders rallied to take a two-stroke lead through 10 holes with Coronado through 13. At that point Lakewood seemed out of it, down nine strokes, three behind Fossil Ridge.
Slowly but surely, Lakewood chipped away at the deficit until it was Coronado at 16-over, Regis 16-over, and the Tigers 17-over with three holes to play for Lakewood and Regis and Coronado on 18. After the next hole, there was a three-way tie.
That's when one of Regis' top players, Tyler Zhang, walked up to the 18th hole with virtually everything on the line.
"Tyler is the guy that broke the logjam, the three-way tie," Regis coach Craig Rogers said. "He had a birdie on 18. I don't know if I'll ever see someone play a hole better than that, especially under the circumstances.
"He wasn't sure if he wanted to hit driver or not, because we were tied, but he hit one of the best drives I've ever seen a high school kid hit. It was right down the middle. Then, he was 95 yards out. He placed it 7 feet away from the hole. The putt never left the cup the whole time. He absolutely drained it."
In one of the closest finishes ever, Zhang's birdie was the difference as the Raiders claimed their fifth state championship in six years with a score of 15-over. Coronado and Lakewood both went 16-over as Fossil Ridge was fourth in 19-over.
After a streak of four straight titles from 2010-2013, the Raiders were the runner-up last year.
"I'm just happy for these kids," Rogers said. "I was thrilled with second, but it was tough on the boys to feel like they lost the run. It's a little pressure and stress. In golf, you can get first place by winning it or someone else losing it. I'm just happy that somebody won it. Nobody gave it away."
Andrew McCormick (tie for 3rd place, 1-over) and Zhang (tie for 5th place, 2-over) are the typical headliners of the team, but Rogers was equally proud of Cal McCoy (tie for 38th, 14-over) and Bennett Rogers (tie for 42nd, 15-over), his son. McCoy and Rogers both fought early adversity in their rounds before settling down and playing solid on the back nine.
In the end, it was enough for Regis to claim their sixth state championship overall in boys golf. They are now tied for third most in Colorado history with Mullen and Fort Collins. Cherry Creek and Kent Denver have both won eight.
Coach Rogers walked away overjoyed, but also relieved to have beaten teams the caliber of Lakewood and Coronado.
"Lakewood and Coronado were playing really, really well," he said. "They are wonderful teams, very talented, and they did nothing wrong. We just happened to get a couple birdies at the end."