Michigan State women's golf hits high note with Big Ten title
When the Michigan State women’s golf team rolled up to TPC River's Bend just outside of Cincinnati on Sunday morning, the bus was quiet.
The Spartans were tied for the lead with Maryland heading into the final round of the Big Ten Championships, and with fog still hanging over the course, they were facing an hour delay.
For a moment, coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll was uneasy.
“In my mind I'm like, ‘Oh boy, what are we going to do with these kids to keep them kind of revved up for the next hour?” Slobodnik-Stoll said.
She held off on her pre-round speech, the delay throwing off the routine.
It was somewhere in the next moment or two when the Michigan State coach suddenly was at ease. The music started playing, the team circled around senior Yurika Tanida, who was leading an impromptu dance party, and Slobodnik-Stoll knew her team was loose, hardly overcome with any sort of tension.
“All of a sudden the music started playing and I was like, ‘OK, blaring music is always a good sign,’” she said. “Then the van door opens and now they're virtually hanging out the van door, dancing and singing. And Yurika, our Japanese player, is an incredible dancer. She has a lot of skills and so it's like the kids are so circled around her and she's dancing in the center and I'm like, ‘It’s gonna be a good day.’”
Slobodnik-Stoll was right about that.
Behind a 4-under 68 from junior Valery Plata, Michigan State put together a final round score of 2-under 286 to finish 11-under for the tournament, outpacing Maryland, Michigan and Nebraska by five shots to capture the Big Ten Championship.
The title is the eighth under Slobodnik-Stoll and first since 2018. The Spartans have won their last three Big Ten titles at TPC River's Bend and this year's 11-under-par 853 was the lowest of their three winning scores at the course.
“It’s an amazing feeling, especially when you've had such a cool group of young women who all are on the same page and want the same thing,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “They’re willing to work, are willing to do what was needed to do to get us through the COVID protocols that keep us safe. So, no, it never gets old. I'll take as many as I can get before I retire.”
Four Spartans finished in the top 14, but it was Plata who was at her best, finishing in a tie for third place at 5-under-par 211 (75-68-68). Plata, who played bogey-free with 4-under 68 on Saturday, got off to a fast start on Sunday with two birdies over the first four holes and three on the front nine to make the turn at 3-under. A birdie on the 17th helped her pick up another stroke to record her second straight 68.
Plata also took home the Big Ten Mary Fossum Award for lowest stroke average to par (-0.57). She's the first Spartan to win the award named after the late MSU coach since Sarah Burnham in 2018.
“It means a lot,” Plata said. “After COVID, last year feels kind of like blurry in my head. I just had to like go home and just stay at home for a long time and I didn't really know what to expect when I came back. To see things unfold like this is, it's pretty amazing. It's pretty cool … to win a conference championship.
“The award, I was not expecting that whatsoever. When they were announcing it, they were like, ‘The award goes to,’ and then they say my name and I look at everyone like, ‘Oh my God.’ I had no idea that was going to happen, so it was very exciting and I was really happy.”
Paz Marfa Sans had her best round of the tournament on Sunday with a 2-under-par 70, helping her to an eighth-place finish at 2-under 214 (72-72-70). It marked the second career top-10 Big Ten Championships finish for Marfa Sans.
Freshmen Leila Raines and Valentina Rossi played well, finishing in 11th and 14th, respectively. Raines, who led the tournament after the opening round, tied for 11th place at even-par 216 (69-71-76) after a 4-over 76 on Sunday. Rossi shot a 1-over-par 73 Sunday and was 1-over 217 (74-70-73) for the tournament, tying for 14th place.
Tanida fired a 3-over 75 on Sunday to finish 4-over 220 (72-73-75) and tie for 20th place, giving the Spartans five players in the top 20. Haylin Harris carded an 8-over 80 on Sunday to finish the tournament 11-over 227 (73-74-80) and tied for 45th place.
The Spartans automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships and will find out where they head for regionals on Wednesday when the field is set.
For Slobodnik-Stoll, winning an eighth conference title was bittersweet after having last season wiped out. It’s left her one behind men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo, who has nine conference titles and is now one-up in a friendly rivalry.
“I always tell him I've got the asterisk because we didn’t get to play last year,” Slobodnik-Stoll said with a laugh. “So, I'm still one behind him, but I’m determined to catch up to him.”
It didn’t slow the celebration on Sunday. Like before the round, the music and dancing continued on the bus on the way home. The regionals are next, but for a couple of hours, the Spartans celebrated a title and simply having the chance to compete again.
“I’ve won some golf tournaments in the past, but I haven't really won team tournament this big ever,” Plata said. “It was really fun and it was something I've never experienced before. … It was good and felt kind of normal, I guess. It was just very fun and something I'll not forget.”