By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- If the members of the Michigan State women's golf team act -- and play -- like they've been there before, it's because they have.
It's true that most of the Spartans will be making their NCAA Championships debut when they tee it up against Oregon and Clemson in Friday morning's first round of stroke play at the Rich Harvest Farms course in Sugar Grove, Ill.
Nevertheless, 20th-year head coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll doesn't expect her players to be awestruck by the event or daunted by what's at stake -- a national title.
Despite MSU's young overall average age (MSU has no seniors), each of its players has already performed, and won, on big stages. And last year at this time, junior Sarah Burnham qualified individually for the NCAA Championships, finishing 45th.
So, asserted Slobodnik-Stoll, the only butterflies that could have an effect on the Spartans will be those flitting around the fairways and greens.
"Our state of mind is pretty much the same since we started playing well in March," said the newly named Big Ten Coach of the Year. "We're very comfortable with where we're at and how everyone is playing and I would say we feel very confident in our abilities.
"Now, we're just looking forward to having a chance to win a national championship."
Regardless of how MSU finishes this weekend, it will own what is arguably the most remarkable in-season turnaround, regardless of sport, in school history.
The injured Spartans limped out of the fall portion of the season ranked 97th and given up for dead. But the addition of freshman Allyson Geer in time for the spring session provided a lift that helped boost the team an astonishing 72 spots in the rankings.
Michigan State went on to win the Big Ten Championship and then earned a berth in the NCAA Regionals for the 18th time in 19 seasons. The Spartans led the Athens Regional after the first round and finished a program-best third to advance to the finals for the 11th time under Slobodnik-Stoll and the 13th time overall.
Burnham, an honorable mention All-American and the Big Ten Player of the Year, is MSU's unquestioned pacesetter with a school record single-season scoring average of 72.42. She also played in 2015 U.S. Open.
Some of her strongest support, however, is being supplied by first-year players.
Freshman Paz Marfa Sans, of Barcelona Spain, led all Spartans in the regional with an even-par 216, which was good for 10th place.
And while Geer is an uninitiated as a college athlete can be, she garnered conference Freshman of the Year honors and is second on the team with a 73.67 average. Although Geer was the No. 1-ranked junior in Michigan since 2013, she never played for a high school team because she was home-schooled and she didn't enroll at MSU until January.
Through it all -- the injuries, the reliance on newcomers, the diminished expectations -- the Spartans' chemistry has somehow been unassailable and that bodes well for playing in the national championship round.
"Chemistry is really important, but it doesn't really matter what year the players are on the team because during the recruiting process here, we make sure every player coming here fits the, quote-unquote, Michigan State mold," Slobodnik-Stoll. "We have a system for what we look for in players and the players get to know each other very well, especially with social media, which makes it so easy.
"So having two freshmen on the team, especially Ally who really just got here, isn't a negative. They move in and start competing, and if they make the traveling team, I want to say there's automatic acceptance from everyone because they're proving they're one of the best players on the team. Paz and Ally both know this is what they were brought here to do."
Marfa Sans and Geer's games have continued to improve as they became more comfortable with their teammates, surrounding and academics, and as a result the Spartans have thrived as a team.
"The team chemistry is awesome right now," Slobodnik-Stoll said. "Everybody enjoys being together and we know how important that is even though on the golf course it's not a team sport whatsoever. They wave to each other from afar, but that's it.
"Still, it's the time we spend together in the van, and at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the fun things we get to do outside of the golf course. It's amazing to watch them and what they've been able to accomplish, knowing that they'll be able to say, they've done it together."
Michigan State's best finish in the NCAA Championships was ninth-place tie in 2013 at Athens, Ga. But if the Spartans have their way, that will be a milepost they pass en route to something even better.
Other teams may buckle under the pressure of the moment, but Slobodnik-Stoll will be surprised if that happens to her players.
"Nothing's gonna be too big for them because each one individually has already competed on huge stages," she said. "They've already done, big, big things, and to us, this is just another golf tournament."
Except for a fourth-place finish at its own Mary Fossum Invitational in September, MSU finished no better than ninth and as low as 16th in its first five tournaments of the season. But the revamped Spartans tied for sixth in their second tournament of the spring, the Central District Invitational in Florida, in late February and were alone in sixth at the Briar's Creek Invitational in South Carolina.
"It's just like when we started playing well at Briar's Creek back in March," Slobodnik-Stoll said. "We know these teams, we see these teams over and over again throughout the year and what's been nice from March and April and now into May is we've had success against a lot of these teams.
"So, we don't have a team of kids who are going to be starry-eyed in any way, shape or form. We've got five players who all, individually, have accomplished incredible things. Sarah, playing in a U.S. Open, being Big Ten Player of the Year and shooting 63 (in the Big Ten Tournament). Katie's won her own collegiate tournament (the Clemson Invitational as a redshirt sophomore). Ally won two (Michigan State Amateur Championships).
"I can really go through each kid and tell you they have competed on a stage equally, if not bigger, than what the National Championships are going to feel like. I think the exciting thing about being at the National Championships is, it's an accomplishment to get there because every year there are top teams in the country that don't make it out."
The MSU staff counted eight top-30 teams that didn't advance to the finals, so the Spartans have not only survived the grind, they prove they belong.
"We're never going to be just happy to be there because we've got really high goals and have the potential to be that good," Slobodnik-Stoll said. "I got over that phase in the early 2000s when just being there was good enough."
The Chicago area is known for its large Michigan State alumni base, and Slobodnik-Stoll will appreciate all the support Spartan fans can muster. After the 24 finalists compete in 54 holes of stroke play Friday-Sunday, the top 15 teams and nine individuals from non-advancing teams will compete in one more round of stroke play on Monday to determine the final eight for Tuesday-Wednesday's match-play competition.
"I've gotten a couple calls from people I don't even know that want to come out and follow the team," Slobodnik-Stoll said. "So, it will be interesting to see what it's going to be like. We're going to play Saturday at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, so if there's potential for a good turnout I would think that would be the day we get a lot of support."