AUSTIN, Texas – Players get better at Michigan State. It’s a hallmark of Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll’s program and, quite frankly, a necessity. For the Spartans to expect to go toe-to-toe with sun-kissed powerhouses like Southern Cal and Arizona State, recruits need to blossom in East Lansing.
Take Katie Sharp, a 6-foot-2 senior from Kendallville, Ind. When Sharp arrived on campus in the fall of 2013, she knew she wasn’t good enough to crack the lineup of the 15-player squad, so she redshirted. Sharp, who averaged 77.14 as a freshman, opened NCAA regional play in Austin, Texas, with a 2-under 70. Any player in Slobodnik-Stoll’s lineup can break par on any given day. Three of them, in fact, average under par on the season. Talent-wise, it’s the best team in Slobodnik-Stoll’s 20-year career at MSU.
“Our goals at Michigan State are win Big Ten,” said Slobodnik-Stoll, “have the highest GPA on campus, which we’ve done seven years in a row, and put yourself in position to win a national championship.”
With the first two items on the list already checked, the Spartans simply need to press on in Austin, where they trail host Texas by four strokes after Day 1. The top six teams from each region advance to the NCAA Championship in Stillwater, Okla. Tenth-ranked Michigan State currently sits in third.
“Paz (Marfa Sans) shot 64 in the first round of the first tournament,” said Sharp. “That just kind of set the tone for what we expected for the rest of the year.”
Spartans ‘expect to be one of the best’
With nine top-three finishes on the season, Michigan State hopes to follow the lead of Northwestern at the 2017 NCAA Championship. The Wildcats fell to Arizona State in the finals at Rich Harvest Farms. As Slobodnik-Stoll walked the hilly University of Texas Golf Club, her mind wandered ahead to what she might say to her team should they advance on Wednesday.
“You can better believe that if we do make it, I’ll be saying ‘I hope you’re all in here to win this,’ ” she said, noting that her team didn’t necessarily need that reminder.
Sarah Burnham opened with a 2-under 70 in Austin. The Minnesota native shaved 5.59 strokes off her scoring average in four seasons at Michigan State, now coming in at 70.68. Burnham became the first Spartan to win the Big Ten’s Mary Fossum Award, which goes to the player with the lowest scoring average.
The state of Michigan wasn’t on Burnham’s original radar for college. She had thought about heading west. Colorado sounded cool. But, like Sharp, Burnham felt at home after visiting Michigan State’s campus.
“Sarah is a very driven kid,” said Slobodnik-Stoll, “very regimented in what she does and how she practices.”
Her progress came down mostly to what’s supposed to happen in college – she matured.
This year’s winter in East Lansing, like many places in America, was especially long and brutal. The Spartans only practiced outside four times before heading to the conference championship. They typically take a trip South around the Martin Luther King holiday, this time to Daytona Beach, Fla. They also head to Naples, Fla., for spring break. Between their Florida getaways, indoor facilities and spring tournament schedule, Slobodnik-Stoll makes certain that her players feel prepared.
“In recruiting we are very, very clear,” she said, “there are no excuses. We expect to be one of the best teams in the country.”