Grinz on Green: Big Ten Champs Turn Focus to NCAA Regionals
With two tournament wins in two weeks, the Spartans are peaking at the right time.
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. – When the injury-riddled Michigan State women’s golf team found itself ranked 99th in the nation last fall, not even the most optimistic Spartans were visualizing championships in the 2016-17 season.
But then a hotshot freshman named Allyson Geer enrolled in time for spring semester and junior Sarah Burnham’s putter turned into a supernova. Now, with two tournament titles nobody saw coming in its rearview mirror MSU is setting its sights on the biggest title of all.
The national championship.
The Spartans were selected on Thursday to play in the NCAA Regionals for the 18th time in the last 19 years, rivaling the postseason consistency of MSU the men’s basketball team with 20 consecutive national tourney appearances. Michigan State will open play as the No. 14 seed in the Athens Regional at the University of Georgia Golf Course May 8-10.
Wins earlier this month at the Lady Buckeye Invitational at Ohio State and the Big Ten Tournament in Mainville, Ohio -- for their fourth conference championship since 2011 -- have the Spartans believing they can contend with every team in the field and asking, “Why not us?”
“It’s definitely been a turnaround,” said Burnham, who was named Big Ten Player of the Year. “In the fall we were ranked 99th and no one really expected us to come back from that. So being able to step up as a team and win the Big Ten championship has been great for us.”
The Spartans began the final day of completion eight strokes back of Northwestern but came on strong to win by two.
“Playing Big Ten golf is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so making lifetime memories is huge and we want to get to the top so we can have that memory for the rest of our lives as well,” Burnham said. It would mean so much to me and I think we can make it. The momentum from we have off the Big Ten championship will just grow our confidence.”
There is nothing cautious about 20th-year head coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll’s optimism heading into the regionals. She wants the Spartans to be dreaming the biggest dreams possible all day and all night long.
“It has to be that way,” said Slobodnik-Stoll, who has six Big Ten titles overall. “Things have changed for us through every portion of the year. In the beginning we were injured and had a poor fall because of that. Next thing, we’re adding Ally Geer as the 12th-ranked player in the nation as a junior (Golfweek Girls Junior Rankings). That obviously was another complete turnaround – something we didn’t expect but was a wonderful thing that happened to us.
“It took us a little bit of time to get adjusted to that, but then we started to get on a little bit of a roll in March and we just haven’t stopped. We are definitely playing our best golf right now and that gives us the opportunity, and lets our players know that we would love to have a chance, to win a national championship.”
The top six teams from the Athens Regional will join those from the other three regionals (Albuquerque, New Mexico; Columbus, Ohio; and Lubbock, Texas) at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Illinois, for the NCAA Championships from May 19-24.
The final 24 teams will compete for three days of stroke play to determine the eight-team championship field.
“If you get into that top eight, and into the match-play portion, anything can happen,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “We’re all thinking that big because why would you be doing this if you weren’t? Winning a Big Ten championship was a goal for a lot of these young women and now they’re saying we’ve checked that off our list, but I’ve said, OK, our list is always kind of the same: to win the Big Ten championship, to have the highest team GPA and to put ourselves in a position to vie for a national championship.”
Since the women’s tournament began in 1982, Purdue in 2010, is the only so-called northern team to win it, but that doesn’t faze Slobodnik-Stoll.
“We don’t care about that,” she said. “It’s still a thing because people don’t ever stop talking about it, and we battle it in recruiting, but the kids who understand what we’ve done here and what we’ve built so we just don’t even talk about it. My big thing in recruiting, and even with our current team, is we practice every day just like everyone else. It just might be a little different at different times of the year, but that doesn’t make it bad or wrong or that you can’t achieve what other teams are achieving.”
Furthermore, Slobodnik-Stoll said MSU’s new state-of-the-art, $6 million Lasch Family Golf Center, which was dedicated last summer, has leveled the playing field with the Spartans’ southern competition by giving golfers the opportunity to train year-round.
“It was great being able to text Mr. (Rick) Lasch and saying we’ve christened the building with its first Big Ten championship,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “Facilities like this allow us to compete and succeed at a high level.”
Going into the regionals, the Spartans -- at No. 49 ranked 50 spots higher than they were last fall -- couldn’t have asked for a better situation for building more momentum. Slobodnik-Stoll’s 2013 team, led by Caroline Powers who is now an MSU assistant coach, finished ninth in the NCAA Championships at the UGA Course. Michigan State has also played there in other tournaments over the years.
“I’ve walked that course a million times,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “It will probably be hot, so I don’t know how we’re going to mirror that, but Caroline and I know the golf course so well we’ll be able to start doing some practices that are going to help us prepare for it.
“It’s a great golf course. We had our highest NCAA finish ever there a few years ago with Caroline as a senior, so it’s pretty special.”
Burnham, the individual runner-up with a 5-under-par 211 at the Big Ten Championships, will be expected to lead the charge. Ranked 37th by Golfweek/Sagarin, the consistent Burnham’s 72.17 scoring average is on pace to break the school single-season record she set last season with 72.42. In the second round in Columbus, she broke her own school record and the Big Ten Championships record by two strokes with a 9-under 63 despite carding a double-bogey along the way.
“I was hitting some pretty good shots, but my putter was really on and I was making everything I was looking at,” Burnham said. “I was like, ‘I know this is going in the hole,’ and they went in. It was just one of those days kind of where it all went together. I didn’t play as well the other two days, but I still finished 5-under for the tournament. It was just a different way of doing it.”
However, Burnham said the addition of Geer was a game-changer. Geer’s 73.44 scoring average is second on the team and she’ll make her NCAA Regionals appearance as the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
“She was huge to our team and then it was just everybody coming together at once and figuring out their game,” Burnham said. “And, we didn’t have as many injuries.”
Geer, who grew up in Brighton as a fan of Big Ten golf, committed to MSU as a ninth-grader. However, because she was home-schooled and didn’t play for a high-school team, she never understood the camaraderie of team competition until this spring.
“I would watch all the Big Ten Championships and watched Caroline Powers play,” she said. “And now, to actually be on the 18th green (at the Big Ten Championships), and make a birdie putt and have everybody so excited like that is such an awesome feeling.
“I think we proved this season we can do anything we set our minds to. That last day at Big Tens we all knew if we set our minds to what we wanted to do we could accomplish it and when you have that mindset anything is possible, and now we’re taking that momentum into regionals. I don’t think there’s any reason we won’t be in the top six, or even win it because I know how strong our team can come together and how people can step up.”
An example of that came on the last day of the Big Ten Championship when Burnham’s 75 didn’t count in the top four, but freshman Logan Otter came through with a personal best 1-over 73.
“It’s all just playing our part,” Geer said. “We don’t look at it as No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 players. We look at it as team scores and if someone has a great day, like Sarah did in that second round, it helps out somebody who didn’t have a great day. And on the last day, Logan Otter stepped up and really helped out our team.
“It’s all just knowing each other and knowing that if somebody isn’t playing well, then to take the responsibility and even taking on the pressure by saying I need to be able to step up. Playing on a team is even better than I imagined it to be and didn’t take that much adjusting to because everybody was so welcoming and we just clicked. This is still new to me, but you have so much more support. When you have a bad day you have people who are going to pick you up, or if someone’s having a good day you feed of her momentum.”
Slobodnik-Stoll doesn’t see any reason to change the Spartans’ winning formula, but has a few adjustments in mind.
“I think we just have to continue to do what we’re doing,” she said. “We’ve got a week-and-a-half before we leave and we just have to continue to work on the things we saw that we could have done better at Big Tens.
“In my mind, we gave away about 10 strokes on two holes and we can’t do that. We could have won the Big Ten championship by 10 or 15, but we didn’t. So we’ve got to look back not in a negative way, but in a positive way, at how can we handle those situations better.”
And if they do, as Slobodnik-Stoll said, anything can happen.