Nagel's comeback leads Michigan State into NCAAs

LIz Nagel of Michigan State during the 2013 NCAA Championships in Athens, Ga.

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ATHENS, Ga. – When Liz Nagel was in the midst of an iodine treatment for thyroid cancer earlier this year, her goldendoodle Dolly carried a lunch pale into her bedroom each afternoon. Michigan State’s Nagel was, at the time, radioactive and confined to her bedroom. She was also restricted to disposable dishware. No one could get within 5 feet.

There’s still a touch of iodine in Nagel’s system, but not enough to do anyone else harm. Few players in this week’s NCAA Championship field fought as hard as 21-year-old Nagel to get here. Even fewer would have her attitude.

“What better motivation to have than a team that needs you,” Michigan State coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll said. “A good team, too.”

Nagel doesn’t want to be seen as the cancer patient, but the truth is she won’t know for another eight months whether she’s cancer-free. She’s not willing to waste a day waiting around.

It was last November that Nagel came to a Friday workout in East Lansing with a nasty cough. Slobodnik-Stoll urged Nagel to walk 20 steps to the team doctor’s office. Nagel balked, saying he’d just offer her Mucinex.

Thankfully, Nagel gave in and saw the doc, who pressed his fingers on her neck and felt a sizable lump. Somehow, Nagel had missed the noticeable bulge. A lymph node had swollen to the size of an egg.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Nagel found out she had thyroid cancer. Two days after Christmas, she underwent an operation to remove her thyroid and several cancerous lymph nodes.

“Now when my mom sees people she says, ‘Let me feel your neck,’ ” Nagel said.

Because the surgery happened over the holidays, Nagel managed to miss very little school and, shockingly, only one golf tournament. There’s a faint scar at the base of her neck, but the rest is hidden by her shirt collar.

Nagel and Slobodnik-Stoll set an ambitious goal of being back in action by the Central District Invitational in mid-February. People thought they were crazy. Nagel’s first tournament day after surgery consisted of 36 holes. She shot 81-76.

“(Cancer) wasn’t going to stop her,” said Carolee Sanford, Nagel’s grandmother and best friend.

Carolee and her husband, Jon, load up their 180-pound Newfoundland, Mac, into their Toyota Prius and drive from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to wherever the Spartans golf team puts a peg in the ground.

This was supposed to be a standout year for the Spartans, with senior Caroline Powers at the helm and Nagel, a junior, in the No. 2 position. Slobodnik-Stoll, now in her 16th year at Michigan State, wasn’t sure how to handle such an extraordinary circumstance. The competitive part of her (Wait! That’s my No. 2 player!) was at odds with the part that knows, in all circumstances, that a player’s health comes first.

“It was very thought-provoking for me,” said Slobodnik-Stoll, who now reacts differently when she sees a squirrely shot from Nagel.

“A bogey here, a bogey there is not going to break us.”

The team goal this week: finish in the top 10 for the first time in program history.

Nagel grew up at Centennial Acres, a public course in Sunfield, where her father, John, is general manager and head professional. She has been swinging a golf club since age 3 and used to ride around with the beverage-cart girls.

“I thought they were my best friends,” she said with a laugh.

Carolee said Liz probably could run the place. Nagel beat her father on the golf course for the first time at age 14. Thyroid cancer was not going to take away her first love.

Nagel was recruited by Michigan and Michigan State, but grew up just outside of Lansing in DeWitt, and sat in her grandmother’s lap during Spartans hockey games. Her grandfather worked security in the tunnel at MSU football games and missed only one game in 35 years, for the wedding of his son. (The game was against Notre Dame.)

When it came time to make a decision, Carolee, an MSU alumna, reminded her granddaughter that 27 family members had gone to Michigan State and zero had a degree from Michigan. Carolee went on to say that she’d wear Michigan’s colors in support of Liz if it came to that, but, for the record, she’d have on green and white underneath.

Nagel credits the support of her team and coaches for getting her to the University of Georgia Golf Course. But really, the Spartans wouldn’t be here if Nagel hadn’t tied for 11th at the NCAA Central Regional to help MSU finish eighth.

“We deserve to be here,” Nagel said.

There were times this semester when Nagel struggled with fatigue. At the Bryan National Collegiate, she nearly withdrew because her thyroid medication wasn’t at the right dosage. She opened the NCAA Championship with a 6-over 78, but was extremely pleasant and grounded after the round. Cancer has a way of changing perspective.

For months Nagel has relied on two words to get her motivated each day: “Spartan strong.” She writes it on her glove and golf ball. It’s how Slobodnik-Stoll signs off every text message.

“We’re all fighters,” Nagel said.

Some, stronger than others.

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