Sometimes the simple things can mean a lot. For Mississippi State, you might say something as simple as a final-round SEC Championship pairing with Alabama, the defending national champions, turned the season around. After 36 holes at SECs, the Bulldogs found themselves trailing the Crimson Tide by 12 shots, and that earned them the right to play with the Crimson Tide in the final round.
“You can’t buy that sort of pairing at such a critical time in the program,” Mississippi State head coach Ginger Brown-Lemm said.
Despite stumbling late on the final day, Mississippi State recorded its best conference finish since 2000. The experience gained in that final round might have helped the team again in regional play. The Bulldogs were the No. 19 seed in the NCAA Central Regional but finished third to earn a spot in the 24-team NCAA Championship.
In the opening round, Mississippi State posted a 12-over 300 led by Ally McDonald’s 2-under 70. The Bulldogs sit alone in 19th place, while McDonald is tied for fourth place.
“Getting to play with the defending national champions at the SECs prepared us for that emotionally,” Brown-Lemm said. “We were able to see that we were just as good a team as the national champions. The difference was they recovered a little quicker from errors, they didn’t let bad holes bother them and we played with them until the last six holes.”
To Brown-Lemm, a national-championship berth came a little earlier than expected. The Bulldogs knew they were getting better and went from a bubble team to an at-large lock midway through the spring season. Scoring averages have been dropping and team records are being replaced.
“I want them to just annihilate every single record in the book, and we are close to doing that,” Brown-Lemm said.
Brown-Lemm is in her third season, and is sculpting a different look at Mississippi State. She has played a role in adding a short-game practice facility, a private driving range and even a new Mercedes van. These bells and whistles are almost a necessity to compete at the level that allows a program to arrive at the final event on the women’s golf schedule.
“When I took the job, they did not have great facilities so they could not recruit exceptional players,” she said. “They were 10 years behind. We just finalized drawings for a $1.5 million team building. We are catching up really quickly and when you play good, people want to help. But it all falls back on your shoulders as a program.”
Ally McDonald is a big reason for Mississippi State’s success. The native of Fulton, Miss., is certain to be an All-American this year and could go down as the best player in Bulldog golf history.
McDonald, ranked No. 26 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, enters this week fresh off a five-shot victory at the NCAA Central Regional and a tie for third at the SECs. In all, she has posted seven top 10s in 11 starts.
McDonald leads a young cast. Just one junior, three sophomores and a freshman make up this week’s Bulldogs lineup. While the team is young, Brown-Lemm also is considered youthful in terms of coaching. She jumped right into a head coaching role with no experience as an assistant. Brown-Lemm spent two seasons as the head coach at Arkansas State before arriving in Starkville, Miss.
“Light years away from where I was five years ago,” Brown-Lemm said. “You are a player, then you are a teacher and then you miss the competitive component so you want to be a coach. So now I am a coach. In two years we cut 12 shots off at Arkansas State and I didn’t know anything. Now in a three-year period here at Mississippi State they have grown, but I have grown more.”
Will Mississippi State win this week? No. But with Brown-Lemm at the controls, this program is on a quick path to becoming a fixture at this level for years to come.
“It’s about belief. Why couldn’t it be us? I won’t rest until we are national champions.”