Kent State made history last spring at the NCAA Championship as the first school from outside the Power 5 conferences to advance to match play. Head coach Greg Robertson’s main message this season: Last year is over.
The Golden Flashes head into NCAA regional action hot off their 20th consecutive Mid-American Conference title. Sophomore Pimnipa Panthong opened the tournament with a conference record 5-under 67, only to be matched by Karoline Stormo the following day. Kent State trounced the field, winning by 57 strokes, and Panthong collected her fourth consecutive individual title.
Kent State heads next to the San Francisco Regional May 7-9 at TPC Harding Park as the fourth seed. The top six teams from each regional site advance to the NCAA Championship at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla. Due to academic obligations, only one Kent State player watched the Golf Channel’s regional selection show with coaches. After listening to soundbites from other coaches referring to next week as the most pressure-packed week of the year, Robertson was glad most of his players were out of the room.
After several close calls at regionals, Robertson made the decision last year to discuss their plan for regionals. The plan was to act normal.
“What other tournament do you go into a tournament worrying about where you are compared to sixth place?” he asked. “I still want to them to go out and play as aggressively as they normally do and shoot as low as they can.”
Three players from last year’s NCAA lineup will compete at regionals: Michaela Finn, Panthong and Stormo. Chloe Salort, a freshman from France, joined the Flashes in the spring and immediately shored up a spot. And while there’s still a Nielsen in the lineup, this time it’s freshman Kory, the youngest of the three Nielsen sisters on Robertson’s roster.
Kory was on hand at last year’s NCAA Championship in Illinois to watch big sister Kelly, flying home and back in the middle of it to graduate from high school.
“The atmosphere was unbelievable,” said Kory. “I would do anything to have that experience inside the ropes.”
Twins Kelly and Kasey will graduate in three years from Kent State this spring and continue on to other schools to pursue further degrees. Mom Sharon Nielsen was a scholarship golfer at Northern Illinois and her daughters’ most consistent coach. Joel Nielsen is athletic director at Kent State and gets out to about half of the golf team’s events. Kory reports that family outings are as competitive as they are fun.
“(Dad) still thinks he can beat us,” she cracked, “but we let him think that.”
Robertson described Kory’s golf swing as both powerful and graceful. Ball-striking is her strength, and with a little improvement in her wedge game and around the greens, Robertson believes she “could be something special.”
While Kory had a couple of built-in best friends on the team in her sisters, she found another role model in Panthong.
Robertson booked a quick ticket to Thailand the moment Panthong expressed an interest in college to watch her compete in Bangkok and spend time with her family. One of the riskiest recruiting moves Robertson had ever made turned out to be the most fruitful.
Panthong a strong ball-striker whose distance control is particularly noteworthy, became a consistently good putter this spring. She’s currently ranked 17th by Golfweek and has seven top-5 finishes in 10 starts. Her worst showing: a tie for 18th.
“The ultimate thing that I learned from Pim throughout the year,” said Kory, “is don’t let the success get to your head and stay humble.”
Even bigger things could be around the corner.