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The Big Kahuna delivers on a championship promise

The Big Kahuna delivers on a championship promise
Sean Benson

In the Coaches Corner of Medals Sports Bar and Grill, the man we called the “Big Kahuna” was all smiles.

Lee LaBreche, then the new Montana Tech head golf coach, was usually smiling and laughing, but this night was different. Lee had just signed Billings Senior star golfer Sean Benson, and he could not contain his excitement as he readied for an appearance on the KBOW sports radio show “Overtime.”

“This kid is the real deal,” Lee said. “He’s going to win the Frontier Conference championship.”

Last Wednesday, a little more than four years after Lee’s promise, Benson, a senior, did just that. He made it look easy, too.

Benson broke par each day, shooting 71, 70 and 71 on the par 72 course for a 4-under total. Reece Nilsen of Rocky Mountain College was the runner up at 218.

It wasn’t quite Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters, but it was a clear runaway. It was as if the win was already written in the stars, and maybe it was.

Watching Tiger’s improbable comeback win in the Masters three days earlier almost brought me to tears. Seeing a Facebook video from Phoenix of Benson making a short putt to cap the title had my eyes running like a faucet.

As good as golfer and student as Benson is, he is an even be person. Lee said he would be a great fit for Montana Tech and the Mining City, and he was right.

Sean is a polite and humble young man. He is what every dad wants his on to grow up to be, whether he is an athlete or not.

Seeing that final putt and watching Benson kiss his fingers and point to the sky was so heartbreakingly bittersweet because Lee was not there to see it. Not in person anyway.

Lee tragically passed away at the age of 55 on Feb. 22.

The death of Lee, who was pretty much a friend of every person he ever met, shocked our community. It was a devastating blow to the Montana Tech men’s and women’s golf teams.

“It crushed us,” Benson said not long after capturing the first Frontier Conference title in the history of the Montana Tech golf program.

The Orediggers kept their fallen coach close to their hearts. They players all wore ribbons with “L.L.” for Lee LaBreche on them over the three-day tournament.

“I had a picture of him in my yardage book all week,” Benson said. “I kept looking at him and asking him for help. He came through for me.”

Really, Lee came through for the entire program. Even though he was one of only two “part-time” head golf coaches in the Frontier Conference, the Kahuna treated recruiting as if he was trying to win in the Pac-12.

He was really the first coach at Tech to treat golf like a real sports program. That is not a knock on the previous coaches, who had bigger jobs to attend to first.

Lee, who served as the county coroner, had a bigger job, too. He just was not going to treat anything bigger than golf.

He said when he took the job that he was going to do it right if he was going to do it at all, and he was all in on the Orediggers.

Benson was his first big get, and Lee really had no business getting him.

He did, after all, just win the Class AA State championship in Bozeman. That came a year after Benson finished two shots behind Class AA champion Austin Berg in Missoula.

Before he was a receiver at Boise State, Matt Miller was an absolute stud on the football field at Helena Capital. The Montana State Bobcats and Montana Grizzlies probably knew they could not get their hands on the kid who was ticked for the big time.

Still, Montana Tech football coach Bob Green either sent a letter or called Miller nearly every week to try go get him to play football for the Orediggers.

“Who knows?” Green said of his persistence in trying to woo Miller, even though he had no shot. “He might want to be an engineer.”

Lee took that approach times 10.

Benson was clearly ticketed to a school and conference much bigger than Tech and the Frontier. Until he met Lee, that is.

That’s when Benson found out that many had already known. Once you met Lee, it was impossible to not want to be around Lee.

The golfer joked that Lee’s mustache and a steak dinner that brought him to town. Whatever it was, the Kahuna landed a star.

Last week, Lee’s Orediggers, who had been accustomed to bringing up the rear in the Frontier Conference tournament before Lee started dreaming big, place second behind Rocky Mountain College.

“He signed Sean Ramsbacher, a diamond in the rough from Missoula,” Benson said of his coach. “He took a chance on Jimmy Amundson, and Trey (Hoagland) stepped up.”

Lee also built a strong women’s team that placed third in the Frontier Conference, behind Rocky and Lewis-Clark State.

That he accomplished this in Butte, where most of the practice time is spent hitting inside and putting on a turf green inside an old racquetball court, makes that accomplishment that much more impressive.

Only a golf coach in Antarctica could have possibly overcome a bigger weather obstacle than what the Orediggers routinely deal with in Butte.

Hoagland is a Butte High graduate. So are Orediggers Isaiah Weldon, a future contender, Hailey Ogolin and Ashten McCloskey.

Lee, who helped run the South West Montana Junior Golf Tour, was always going to give the local boys and girls a chance.

He also shot for the moon by trying to land world-class talent. Take Libby superstar Ryggs Johnston, the 2018 Montana State Amateur champion, for example.

“He tried to recruit Ryggs. He really did. I saw it,” Benson said. “There was no way Ryggs was coming to Montana Tech, but Lee tried to recruit him.”

Johnston is going to play for Arizona State on his way to what is a likely PGA career. Lee tried to sell him on being an engineer, too.

Other coaches would have figured trying to recruit Johnston was a waste of time because he was clearly going to the big time.

Other coaches would have thought trying to sign Benson was a waste of time, too, because he has potential Pac-12 talent, too.

Thankfully, Lee took a shot with Benson. Thankfully, Benson took a shine to the hefty guy with a crazy mustache.

Thanks to Lee, Montana Tech has a golf program to really be proud of. The Orediggers have a Frontier Conference champion who will shoot for an NAIA national championship next month in Arizona.

Unfortunately, Lee will not be making the flight with his prized recruit.

It is comforting to know, however, that the big fella will be there in Benson’s heart.

— Bill Foley writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. 1 comment



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1 Comment

  • Peter Benson
    April 23, 2019, 9:32 am

    wow Bill what a really heart felt and emotionally moving piece. Thank you

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