May 19, 2014
It's not easy to measure the true impact of a senior class.
But in the case of Allyssa Ferrell, Christine Meier and Liz Nagel, the three Big Ten Championship trophies on display at the Rearick Golf Complex create a lasting image of the success this trio has experienced during their time in East Lansing.
All three currently rank in the top 10 for all-time scoring average at Michigan State. All three have garnered All-Big Ten and Academic All-Big Ten honors. And all three have earned their degrees.
Together, they helped Michigan State to a school-record ninth-place finish at last year's NCAA Championships in Athens, Georgia.
But there's still one more chapter to be written this week at the 2014 NCAA Championships, in what will be their final collegiate golf tournament.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime - one that Ferrell had dreamed of before.
All that stood in the way of winning a third Big Ten Championship was a 9-foot putt. On the 18th green. On the last day of the tournament. With every other player's scorecard turned in and completed.
Everyone watching, everything riding on the line.
Make it, and the Spartans would tie Ohio State for their third conference crown in four years. Miss it, and, well...
"She knew she had to make it - and it went right in the middle," said Slobodnik-Stoll following the win. "For Allyssa to come through in that clutch moment, those are things you can't teach. She believed in herself.
"It was the best college golf finish that I've ever been a part of. In sports, those are the moments that you live for."
"It was emotional, but I went back to when I'm practicing, and I tell myself, `OK, this is the putt to win," said Ferrell after the tournament. "That's what I did when I had that putt."
"The Putt" was a culmination of a career that began with Ferrell leading the rallying cry of wanting to win four Big Ten Championships.
"It means a ton," remarked Ferrell, who placed fifth at the Big Ten Championships for the second straight year and was named to the All-Championships Team. "When I first came in, I said to coach that I wanted to win four (Big Ten Championships), but that was taken away last year. But I still had the opportunity to win three, and the team worked extremely hard every day to get to this moment.
"For Allyssa to come through in that clutch moment, those are things you can't teach. She believed in herself."
"I'm so proud of our team and happy to be leaving with three Big Ten Championship rings. That's something incredible that not a lot of people have had the opportunity to do, so I feel very lucky."
Ferrell, who graduated with a 3.33 grade-point average in education, has improved her scoring average every year, and enters the NCAA Championships with a career-low 74.58 average, which is ninth best in a MSU single season. She set a 54-hole school record with a 9-under-par 207 in the Central District Invitational in mid-February to earn a share of medalist honors, in addition to tying a school record with a 5-under 67 in the second round of the CDI.
"Allyssa is just a model of consistency on the golf course," said Slobodnik-Stoll, as Ferrell has nine career top-10 finishes and currently ranks sixth in school history with a 76.03 career scoring average. "Out of the three of them, she's the most vocal about what our expectations are, and making sure those are passed along to the players coming back."
One story in particular stands out to Slobodnik-Stoll about Ferrell's leadership.
"Coming back from the Big Ten Championships, the freshmen always sit in the back of the van, and they get to progress up (throughout their career)," Slobodnik-Stoll reminisced. "So Gabby (Yurik) and Kelly (Grassel) were sitting in those back two seats and I'm driving, and I heard Allyssa turn around to them and say, `My goal was to win four Big Ten Championships here. And I won three, which is pretty good. But you're freshmen, and you've won one - now you can continue to the legacy to win four in your career here.'
"Those are things as a coach you pray your kids say, but actually hearing it...it's one of the moments I'll never forget. And whether she, or anyone else thought it was a big deal, it was a huge deal. Because to me, what that said was, these kids believe that we are winners. It's engrained in this program that this is what we expect, and that we're going to do in practice and workouts and the classroom whatever it takes to continue our success."
SHINING ON THE BIG STAGE
Meier's defining moment as a Spartan arrived last spring when she placed sixth at the 2013 NCAA Championships, tying for the best-ever finish by an individual at nationals.
"Last year was great," said Meier. "And to make the birdie on the ninth hole so that we could come in (a school-record) ninth place was awesome."
"Watching her last year and getting to walk beside her at the NCAA Championships when she was in the zone was special," Slobodnik-Stoll said. "All coaches and athletes talk about being in the zone - and she definitely was. It was just so cool to be a part of her world and be next to her to see what it was really like. She believed in every shot.
"I know she feels confident in this national championship, and hopefully the mindset is the same and she can better her individual finish. In her mind, after finishing sixth last year, she believes she has the potential to win."
While Meier ranks 10th in MSU history with a 76.61 scoring average and has seven career top-10 finishes, she has been just as successful competing in the summer.
"Watching Christine last year and getting to walk beside her at the NCAA Championships when she was in the zone was special."
- Slobodnik-Stoll on Christine Meier placing sixth at the 2013 NCAA Championships
The Rochester Hills, Michigan, product has won the Michigan Women's Amateur two of the past three years and reached the final stage of the LPGA Qualifying Tournament last fall. She also qualified for match play at the 2013 U.S. Women's Amateur and tied for seventh at the 2013 Michigan PGA Women's Open, which was second best among amateurs.
Meier has already played on the sport's biggest stage, as she became the first Spartan in nine years to participate in the U.S. Women's Open while still enrolled in school, automatically qualifying in 2012 to compete at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wisconsin.
Slobodnik-Stoll sees a bright future for Meier in the professional ranks.
"Christine made it to the finals of the LPGA qualifying school this past fall, which shows her potential," the 17th-year Spartan head coach said. "She's a very, very experienced player. Look out in match play. I wish I had her when the NCAA Championships go to match play, because she's just very gritty and competitive."
Meier graduated at the beginning of the month with a 3.01 GPA in communication and is expecting to go out on a successful note in the national tournament at the end of the month. She is taking the lessons learned from her previous experiences at the NCAA Championships to prepare for Tulsa.
"The first two days matter a lot," she said. "You have to have a lot of patience and understand that it's going to be a very difficult golf course and the conditions are always tough. Every single stroke counts.
"It's awesome to see everyone really come together at the same time. To have freshmen step up and play so incredibly well our last three tournaments, and just to see everyone's score all come together at the same time, it makes it really special."
SPARTAN STRONGNagel's most difficult challenge during her time at MSU didn't arrive on the golf course. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in November of 2012 and had surgery a month later in December.
Last spring, although she was undergoing treatments, she showed incredible resolve, missing just one tournament and remaining a fixture in the starting lineup.
The DeWitt, Michigan, native used the phrase "Spartan Strong" to inspire herself and her teammates during her fight against cancer - which is now in remission.
"This year has meant a lot," said Nagel, who leads the team with a 74.52 scoring average and was named to the All-Big Ten First Team. "There was a time where I didn't know if it was going to get back to where it was. Then this fall was great, and then with the Big Ten Championship, and going to regionals and nationals, this is our last goal that we want to fulfill (top-eight finish at NCAAs)."
Nagel's impressive senior season featured an emotional victory at the Mary Fossum Invitational in September at Forest Akers West. Just days after her grandfather, Jon Sanford, passed away, Nagel won her first collegiate tournament with several members of her family cheering her on every step of the way.
"Liz's 'Spartan Strong' motto will stay with her and for us forever."
- Slobodnik-Stoll on Liz Nagel's fight against cancer
"The week was upsetting for me and I contemplated not playing, but I thought there's no better way to honor my grandpa than to go out here and try and win this tournament," Nagel said afterward. "In my mind, I was focusing on getting the team win, and I played well, and I said, `OK, let's go win this whole thing for him.' I've never had this many family members watch me before. It was really special to have everybody around me. It feels really good to all be together, even though it's a tough time."
That moment helped propel her into four more top-10 finishes on the season.
For her career, Nagel is currently fourth in the MSU record books with a 75.74 scoring average. Two of her best single-rounds have come in the clutch - a 68 in the third round of the 2013 NCAA Central Regional and a 69 in the third round of the 2012 East Regional - helping the Spartans to berths in the NCAA Championships. She again led the charge at the 2014 NCAA West Regional with a 14th-place showing.
"Liz has really come into her own the past couple of years and doing what we knew she was capable of doing," said Slobodnik-Stoll. "And then you throw in the cancer, and her grandfather...she's gone through a lot for a 22-year-old woman. Her `Spartan Strong' motto will stay with her and for us forever. She's just a wonderful young person who really loves Michigan State."
A hospitality business major who graduated with a 3.30 GPA, Nagel couldn't have asked for much more during her final season wearing the Green and White.
"It's not about me anymore, and I think we've proven that; it's about the team, and I'm really glad we've ended on this note versus, `oh, poor Liz,'" she said. "I don't want it to be about that anymore. Now it's about Spartans and our team, and we've accomplished our goals, so we're happy."
Ferrell, Meier and Nagel made sure the Spartans would reach the NCAA Championships this year with strong performances on the last day of the NCAA West Regional, keeping the Spartans in the top eight and securing a trip to Tulsa.
"We definitely took it upon ourselves and said `this is it, we don't want this to be our last round,'" said Nagel. "I think that clearly showed through."
"I think the seniors took the experience that we had and applied it pretty well," Ferrell said. "We were very excited...we were all trying to do everything we could.
"I think that's the way it will be at nationals too, and that's the way it should be. When you have three seniors on the team, you should be the lead horses. But I think we have a solid five right now. I feel really confident about nationals that we're going to get higher than ninth."
The Spartan trio will compete together one last time at the Tulsa Country Club this week, looking for another top-10 showing on the sport's biggest stage.
"They've accomplished a lot, not only at Michigan State, but in their amateur careers," said Slobodnik-Stoll of her 2014 senior class. "They're three outstanding young women. They're die-hard Spartans and they love Michigan State and our team. I think that passion for our program is what leads us to be successful. They're all very different in their own little way, but when they come together as a team, they want to win and they know that's what our expectation is, and they made sure that happened."
The 2014 NCAA Women's Golf Championships will be held this Tuesday-Friday (May 20-23) at the Tulsa Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Follow live scoring of the tournament all week at NCAA.com.
By Ben Phlegar, MSU Athletic Communications