By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. – After surviving a season fraught with concerns, motivation is the least of the Michigan State men’s golf team’s worries heading into the NCAA Championships.
If MSU advances out of next week’s Regionals at Sammamish, Washington and into the NCAA National Golf Championships, there’s a good chance injured senior Sam Weatherhead, who has been so instrumental to the program’s resurgence, will be able to play one more time for the Spartans.
Senior Charlie Netzel, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, would like nothing better than for Michigan State to finish among the top five in the Pacific Northwest so he can close out his career near his hometown of Western Springs, Illinois. The Championships will be played at the Rich Harvest Farms course just west of Chicago, May 26-31.
Most importantly, moving on would build on the momentum sixth-year coach Casey Lubahn’s program generated a year ago when it qualified for the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 2009. The Spartans came on strong at the end of the event but just missed advancing to the Championships after tying for eighth in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
And yet, the Spartans felt like they put their lofty aspirations in jeopardy with four subpar performances to end this season.
“The way we finished the year was frustrating, and I don’t think any of expected us to make it (into the Regionals) but we were hoping,” Netzel said. “Then when the rankings came out we knew we were going to make it, so we got new life and were very excited. Nobody wants their season to end early.
“We did enough in the beginning and the middle of the year to earn a spot in the Regionals, and we look at it as we have everything to gain and kind of nothing to lose with where we’re at.”
Despite making it to Regionals last season, the Spartans entered the 2016-17 season with question marks.
“This was a year we were a little worried about because we lost a lot from last year’s team,” Lubahn said.
There was even more attrition when two of Michigan State’s starters from last season were ruled ineligible, due to unforeseen technicalities, before the fall portion of the 2016-17 season.
“No fault of their own; awesome kids,” Lubahn said.
However, after a strong fall showing, with two first-place finishes and a fourth, MSU had what Lubahn considered “one of the best teams we’ve had in a decade” and every reason to believe the Spartans would be a cinch to not only return to the Regionals but make back to the NCAA Championships for the first time in 10 years.
Then, the injury bug claimed three more starters this spring, including Weatherhead, a potential All-American who sustained a slow-to-heal fracture in his hand, and “our biggest recruit in program history, Andrew Walker,” Lubahn said. “We were real excited about where the program was at and then it was hard not to think about ‘what if?’ for a while. We lost, really, five starters from where we were in August, and they still found a way to get into the NCAA Championships.”
It should be noted that in college golf, the team’s top five golfers compete in events.
The Spartans started well in February and March, winning the Colleton River Collegiate in Bluffton, South Carolina. Michigan State also competed well at a pair of duals.
But in their last four tournaments, they were eighth at the Clemson Invitational, tied for 11th in both the Boilermaker Invitational and the Robert Kepler Intercollegiate and tied for 13th in the Big Ten Championships.
The pressure of trying to make the field of 81 in the Regionals may have been wearing on the Spartans, but now that they’re in it, could prove to be a dangerous team.
“I think I failed as a psychologist the last three or four weeks of the season when everybody was just holding on too tight,” Lubahn said. “What happens in golf is you’ve got five guys out there and they’re all playing their own round but they’re used to looking across at other guys they trust, saying, ‘Hey, if I play poorly this guy is going to carry it.’
“With all the injuries, I felt the top guys who were left were holding on a little tight at the end saying, ‘If I play poorly I’m going to let the team down.’ Right now, I feel like we’re in a totally different environment. It’s all opportunity; it’s all upside. They know making the NCAA Championships is one of our big goals of the year and after being in such good shape they were worried about losing that. Now we’re just worried about doing something special.”
Netzel filled the leadership void created by Weatherhead’s absence and is also in the midst of his best season as a Spartan. He won the Colleton River Collegiate and carded a career-low 205 at the Alister MacKenzie Invitational in October. He also boasts a team-best scoring average of 72.56.
Right behind Netzel is junior Michael Sharp (74.09), who has made great strides as a first-year starter. He and Netzel lead the team with four top-individual scores each. Then there’s Kaleb Johnson, an explosive true freshman from Naples, Florida who hits the ball 330 yards off the tee and has a knack for turning into a birdie machine.
“I was giving a speech in town the other night and I was talking about, if the whole team incrementally improves it’s amazing how much better the collective gets and that’s kind of what happened,” Lubahn said. “Everyone just went up a level.
“It was a pretty impressive group that just had a lot of adversity to beat back over the course of the season. They’ve handled it with incredible class and a lot of guys have had to step up in their absence. What we think is the minimum standard of excellence for this program is we compete in the tournament every year.”
If the 11th-seeded Spartans charge out of the gate in the first round of the 54-hole Washington Regional on Monday, Lubahn believes they will be in the hunt on Wednesday to be one of the five teams that advance.
“We can beat anybody on any given day,” Lubahn said. “We’ve proven that all year.”
The chances of doing that might be even better if Weatherhead, who’s ranked 30th in the nation and also earned second-team All-Big Ten honors based on his performance in the fall, was afforded the opportunity to rejoin the starting lineup just in time for the Championships.
“He’s not quite back but one of our many goals is we don’t want him to finish his career with an injury,” Lubahn said. “We want find a way to get to the NCAA Finals because we think he’ll be able to play in them. He won’t play (in the Regionals), but he could go in a couple weeks. It’s one of those little things we’re talking about for motivation – ‘Hey, we want to send Sam out the right way and that’s in Chicago in what would be the last tournament of his career.’
“I want to make sure the last month doesn’t overshadow what we still have ahead of us and what a year we’ve had. When we’re unhappy about getting a low seed in the NCAA Championships, I think we’re doing fine.”
Furthermore, the potential is there for the Spartans’ situation to get so much better, especially in light of everything they’ve been through.
“It would have been so frustrating not to make it in,” Netzel said. “We always had the excuse of guys getting hurt but you can’t look at it like that. There’s 12 guys on the team so everybody wants to play and with any of the five guys that do, we know we should be a good team. For the last four or five years, Coach has built a program where we expect to make Regionals.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re freshmen or seniors, everybody is a good player in this program.”
Good enough, in Netzel’s estimation, to not just be happy with getting into the tournament.
“Last year, it was our first time being there in a long time and we were just excited to play in it,” he said. “We didn’t really care how we did, I guess, and this year I think we’re expecting to make it and we know if we play well we can get through.
“Everybody’s played well at different times and we’re just looking to put it all together the same week. The five us and coaches know that if we play well we will advance. You have to believe it before you can do it.”
Netzel grew up about a half-hour east of Rich Harvest Farms, and what a homecoming it would be for him to close out his career competing for a NCAA title in his own back yard.
“I’ve played that course several times and all my friends would be there,” he said. “It would be a fun way to end my career.”