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Burnham leads surging MSU golf team into NCAAs

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

When Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll thinks back to last fall, it’s sometimes hard to imagine how for her Michigan State women’s golf team has come.

Playing in the NCAA Championships wasn’t exactly at the top of the list.

At that time, the Spartans were battling injuries and working through sickness, all of it affecting the way they played on the course. Not surprisingly, they didn’t fare well and by the time the calendar turned and spring was rolling in, Michigan State was nowhere to be found in the national rankings.

But after a spring break trip that included nothing but practice, things started to turn around. The Spartans started playing well, led by Big Ten Player of the Year Sarah Burnham and Ally Greer, the top freshman in the conference.

As the regular season closed, Michigan State won the Buckeye Invitational at Ohio State and followed that with a title at the Big Ten tournament. A third-place finish in the NCAA Regional last week in Athens, Ga., led to this week’s NCAA Championship.

Play begins on Friday at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill., and concludes on Wednesday.

“We’re very excited about being at the NCAA Championship,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “It’s the top 24 teams in the country and it’s not easy to get there, even if you’ve got an incredible team.”

Getting to this point has been a work in progress, and it’s one that took time for the college golf world to notice. Michigan State began the spring season ranked 99th in the nation and when the Big Ten tournament began, the Spartans were ranked seventh in the conference.

By then, however, momentum had already begun to shift.

“We kind of all found our game, I feel like and we started working well with each other,” Burnham said. “When we won the Ohio State tournament I feel like that’s when it really was like, ‘We’re here to win tournaments not just compete.’ ”

Having the best player in the Big Ten has helped.

Burnham, who played in the U.S. Women’s Open in 2015, enters the NCAA Championship ranked 34th in the Golfweek collegiate individual rankings and has a 72.22 scoring average. She has finished as the runner-up in two of the last three tournaments (Lady Buckeye Invitational and Big Ten Championships) and carded a 9-under 63 in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. The round included 11 birdies with six in a row at one point.

“She’s just an incredible player who is so talented and not only that, is a great student and an incredible young women from a personality and character perspective,” Slobodnik-Stoll said of Burnham. “We’re so happy to have her at Michigan State and you can’t not love the kid.”

While Burnham has continued to lead, the Spartans got a spark in January when freshman Ally Geer enrolled. Ranked the No. 1 Michigan junior golfer since 2013, Geer entered Michigan State ranked 12th in the Golfweek Girls Junior Rankings.

It was an adjustment for Geer, who is from Brighton but was home-schooled and had never played on a team before. But it’s been a quick adjustment as she placed fourth at the Big Ten Championships, is second on the team in birdies per round (2.81) and her 73.67 scoring average is second only to Burnham’s.

“The biggest thing for us was adding the No. 12 ranked junior in the country in January,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “We have the components but I think when you add a player like Ally Geer along with Sarah and the other players we had it just kind of made a world of difference.

“It took Ally and the team a little bit to get adjusted to each other. … Finally in March after a 10-day spring break trip of just practicing it all started coming together. We having looked back since then.”

If it all continues to come together over the next few days and ends in Michigan State’s first national title, it would be the highlight of Slobodnik-Stoll’s 20 years at Michigan State and come in the same year she’s set to be inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame.

Her focus, however, is in the moment, a moment that won’t be too big for the program. This is the 11th time Slobodnik-Stoll has taken the Spartans to the NCAA Championship with a program-best ninth-place finish in 2013.

“We talked to them last week about just dreaming of winning a national championship,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “Why are you here if you’re not? We have an opportunity to win so let’s do it. We’ll give it our all and do the best we can.”

NCAA WOMEN’S GOLF CHAMPIONSHIPS

When: Friday-Wednesday; Sugar Grove, Ill.

Course: Rich Harvest Farms; Par 72, 6,343 yards

TV: Golf Channel, Monday-Wednesday

Format: All 24 teams and 12 individuals will complete 54 holes of stroke play (Friday-Sunday). Following the 54-holes, the top-15 teams along with the top nine individuals not on an advancing team will move on for one additional day of stroke play (Monday) to determine the top eight teams for match play competition (Tuesday-Wednesday) and the stroke-play individual champion. The top eight teams for match play will be placed into a bracket.

Teams competing: 1. Stanford, 2. Alabama, 3. Florida, 4. Florida State, 5. USC, 6. Arizona State, 7. Duke, 8. Furman, 9. South Carolina, 10. Northwestern, 11. Miami, 12. Kent State, 13. Texas, 14. Baylor, 15. California, 16. Purdue, 17. Ohio State, 18. Michigan, 19. Texas Tech, 20. Pepperdine, 21. North Carolina, 22. Clemson, 23. Oregon, 24. Michigan State

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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