NCAA-bound MSU women's golf team's season turned with April victory

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll knew her Michigan State women’s golf team was good enough to play for a national championship.

But after having last season cut short by COVID-19, the Spartans started slowly in 2021. There was a win at the FAU Paradise Invitational in early February, but the highlights were few after that. When the Spartans finished ninth at the Clemson Invitational in late March, they needed a spark.

Valery Plata

“We struggled midseason just a little bit and that's kind of part of life,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “There’s always peaks and valleys and we just kept pushing the kids.”

As Slobodnik-Stoll recalled, she and assistant Caroline Powers Ellis reminded their team of the talent that was “oozes out of (the team) van.”

It meant the Spartans were far better than they were playing and they responded a week later. MSU dominated the field, winning by 32 strokes at the IU Spring Challenge on April 5 with five golfers finishing in the top six spots. Michigan State was off and running, taking third two weeks later at the Indiana Invitational before winning the Big Ten championship a week after that.

Last week, the Spartans finished fourth at the Louisville Regional to qualify for the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2017. Play begins Friday at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“I think it just proves once again, Spartans are tough and we are resilient and we have proven that we're one of the best teams in the country for over 20 years now,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “I don't ever want that to change. I don't care whether it's a world pandemic or whatever comes that we have to make it through. Like, we're going to do it. We’ve had too many players that have come before this team that have worked long and hard to make sure that this team is in the place it is.

“We’re just not going to let anything stop us.”

More: Michigan State golfer James Piot advances to NCAA Championships

It was that weekend in Indiana that really turned the season around, and it was the moment Slobodnik-Stoll truly started buying in to what here team might be able to accomplish.

Valery Plata’s final-round 65 led the way that day, and the Spartans haven’t stopped.

“I felt like we needed something like that,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “We just kind of weren't getting those four scores. We kind of needed a break. We went down to that smaller tournament and crushed the field.

“It was at that point when we just said to them, ‘The sky's the limit for this team,’ and we know that it truly is now and they believe that as well.”

Michigan State shot 14-over-par 878 at the regional to tie for fourth with Auburn. Florida State was first at 8-over ahead of Texas and UCLA at 11-over. The Spartans finished just ahead of top-ranked South Carolina, which advanced to the NCAA Championship after winning a tiebreaker.

Individually last week, Michigan State was led by senior Yurika Tanida, who finished at 1-under, good for seventh place overall. Plata was in 12th place at 1-over while senior Paz Marfa Sans shot 5-over, freshmen Leila Raines was 11-over and freshman Valentina Rossi was 16-over.

This is the 13th trip to the NCAA Championship for Michigan State and 12th under Slobodnik-Stoll. The best finish for the Spartans was a tie for ninth in 2013. And while they’re not loaded with championship experience – Marfa Sans was on the 2017 team and junior Haylin Harris played as an individual in 2019 – plenty of the Spartans have played in big tournaments over the years.

“There’s nothing that's going to happen that's going to shock them,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “It's just the realization that we would really like to get into the top eight to have a chance at that match-play situation to win a national championship. So I'm not worried at all of them walking onto the golf course and being wowed by it. They’ve seen it all. Even though it hasn't been a national championship, per se, they've all played on such a big stages.

“We’re going to make it fun for them yet, they're gonna know it is a business trip where they're going to have to do a job, and we want to get that job done.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau