First-Year Leads Young Team To Links
EAST LANSING, Mich.--The final round of the 1996 Big Ten women's golf championship last May 4 marked the end of an era for Michigan State University women's golf, as 25-year head coach Mary Fossum was calling it a career. Adding to the emotional setting were three seniors playing their final rounds for the Green and White, as the Spartans tied for seventh place at the conference tournament.
Upon closer inspection, however, this day might have been more about the future than the past. Amidst all the tears, smiles and farewell hugs, a huge statement was being made by three sophomores who were busy turning in identical rounds of 79 that day, performances duly noted by Stacy Slobodnik, a former Spartan linkster herself and then-assistant coach.
Now just the second head coach in MSU women's golf history, Slobodnik points to that round as an impetus for her young squad as it enters the 1997-98 campaign.
"The last round of the Big Ten Championship last year was a key for us," Slobodnik said. "The three sophomores had an energy between them that day and the level of enthusiasm they displayed will carry over into this year. They really made a statement in that round, and they believe they can build upon those performances."
Kellie Dennis led the charge with a 322 for the tournament to pace all Spartans with a 14th-place effort, while classmates Ellen Bishop and Meggan Schumaker battled back from inclement weather during the first two days to finish strongly. This trio will be called upon to lead a young roster that boasts just one senior.
Perhaps it is fitting that Slobodnik--MSU's youngest head coach at 26 years old--takes the reins of one of the youngest teams on campus in her first year.
"It's a very exciting time for myself and all the players," Slobodnik said. "We can be a very competitive team, and with some changes in our approach that can happen this year. Our first priority is to have fun; everyone has to have fun in order to play golf. I also believe in hard work, and this team will work hard. I ask them to give me 100 percent on the course, and in return I give them 100 percent of my attention."
Another key will be whether the Spartans can sustain the early season successes they've had in recent years and carry them into the spring portion of the schedule. Last year, MSU placed in the top 10 of each fall tournament and was in the top five on three occasions, but then began to slip in the spring outings.
A renewed emphasis on the short game and a new state-of-the-art practice facility for this season should be just the remedy the Spartans are looking for, according to Slobodnik. The 20-acre Forest Akers Golf Center includes a 3-acre practice tee, practice bunkers, target greens and a 20,000-square-foot putting green.
"The new facility will allow for more structured practices and a concentrated effort on our short game," Slobodnik said. "Our short game and competitive level should improve immensely.
"All of our players have nice, smooth swings and can hit the ball long off the tee, but we've faltered on the rest of the game in the past; approach shots, sand shots, chipping and putting. All of those areas will now be structured into our practices."
Bishop and Dennis are the leading returnees for MSU, posting stroke averages of 82.1 and 82.2, respectively, last season. Bishop was MSU's top finisher on two occasions, while Dennis led the Spartans in the Big Ten Championship. Both played in all 30 rounds for MSU with just one stroke separating the two in season totals--2,464 for Bishop and 2,465 for Dennis. Schumaker also will play a pivotal role for the Green and White this year after averaging 84.4 strokes in 24 rounds a year ago. She led all Spartans in last year's season-opening Wolverine Invitational.
"The three juniors will be the core of the team and they are excellent role models," Slobodnik said. "They have a good work ethic and they want to succeed at a higher level. I'm confident the will take charge and the other players will learn from them."
With the returning starters providing the leadership and experience, the remainder of the roster offers depths of untapped skills, starting with a pair of freshman who burned up the Indiana high school circuit a year ago. Both Gant and Brown earned all-state honors last season, and each participated in the Indiana Women's State Amateur Tournament last summer.
"Kasey and Kelly were two of the top players in Indiana last year. They were consistently in the 70s and their solid play continued during the summer," Slobodnik said. "They should be able to step right in and make an impact with the playing group."
A host of other Spartans will vie for spots on the traveling squad along with Gant and Brown. Tops among that list are redshirt freshman Kristy Hartman and sophomore Tricia Gregory. Hartman is a former three-time high school regional champion who spent last season honing her skills at the collegiate level, while Gregory is a former prep state champ who is ready to make her move after two years in the program.
"Kristy Hartman and Tricia Gregory are hard workers who have the skills to challenge for a spot in the playing group," Slobodnik said. "I believe any of the players on the team can step up on a given week and make the traveling team."
Senior Jaime Martin and junior Summer Kline saw limited action last year and will add experienced depth to the roster along with junior April Holly, who is still looking for her first collegiate activity.
Two other freshmen round out the roster: Abbey Beardslee from Birmingham Seaholm and Kari Prochazka of Flushing.
"Our goal--based on the talent in the Big Ten and our performance during the last two years--is to be in the top five of the Big Ten this year," Slobodnik said. "Of course, I'd like to finish higher, but that is a realistic goal for this season, and one that we are very capable of achieving. The returnees on this team are ready to move to the next level of competition."
The Spartans will begin the 1997-98 campaign right where they ended the 1996-97 slate: at home on Forest Akers West Course to host the Spartan Fall Invitational on Sept. 13-14.
The following week has MSU traveling to the Lady Northern at Penn State for a preview of the course that will later host the Big Ten Championships on May 1-3. The usual ambitious schedule fills the time in between the two trips to PSU, including stops at Ohio State, Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana and Iowa.
MSU also has three tournaments in Florida and one in Arizona on the docket for this season.