ANN ARBOR - For a while on Saturday, it looked like the 20th-ranked Michigan State women's golf team's season might end in the NCAA Central Regionals for the second straight season.
Sophomore Holly Niederkohr (Marysville, Ohio/Marysville) said she could remember the team falling five strokes short of the NCAA Championships last year as the team struggled. Senior Heather Rose (Chillicothe, Ohio/Chillicothe) said she was afraid she was playing her last collegiate round, as the Spartans were in danger of not finishing in one of the top-eight slots needed to earn a bid to the NCAA Championships.
However, back-to-back birdies on the par-4, 357-yard No. 17 by junior Sara Brown (Tucson, Ariz./Salpointe Catholic) and senior Rachel Meikle (Ft. Wayne, Ind./Carroll) helped the Spartans clinch the school's eighth bid to the NCAA Championships with an eighth-place finish in the NCAA Central Regionals at the University of Michigan Golf Course. The Spartans finished with a three-day score of 49-over-par 901 (295-295-311), five strokes ahead of ninth-place finisher Arkansas.
"I just kept telling the team to grind it out," Michigan State head coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll said. "Sometimes out here, bogeys are fine. They all hung in there and that's why we're in the eighth slot."
The Spartans entered the final round in seventh-place, two strokes ahead of both Arkansas and Arizona. Arizona fired a final round 293 to jump to fifth place while Arkansas finished the final round with a 30-over-par 314, three strokes behind the Spartans' final round 311. Southern California earned the regional title with a three-round total of 17-over-par with Georgia, Texas Christian, Indiana, Arizona, Vanderbilt and Tennessee also earning bids to the NCAA Championships in Daytona Beach, Fla., with the four-round tournament beginning Tuesday, May 22.
"For our program, it's been the same," Slobodnik-Stoll said. "We want to win the Big Ten Championships every year and we want to finish in the top 10 at nationals. I expect the team to qualify for nationals every year. It's something that we should expect from ourselves and it's tough. There's teams that come from behind. It's athletics. It's tough in a three-day tournament."
Now, Niederkohr will play in her first NCAA Championships and Rose will head to her third. Slobodnik-Stoll will take the Spartans to their sixth NCAA Championships in her 10 seasons as head coach.
"We all just hung on," Niederkohr said, "which is what we do best. It worked out today."
The Spartans were led by Brown in the final round of the tournament, shooting a 6-over-par 77 to finish the tournament tied for 42nd. She had a wild round, posting five birdies, but being hampered by playing three holes 8-over-par. She started the round 6-over-par through the first five holes before posting birdies on the par-4, 309-yard No. 6, the par-4, 390-yard No. 9, the par-4, 356-yard No. 10 and the par-13, 321-yard No. 13 to drop to 2-over-par. However, she played the next three holes at 5-over-par before a birdie on the par-4, 357-yard No. 17 brought her back to 6-over for the day. On 17, she stuck an approach shot from 120 yards out to 10 feet away from the cup before draining the birdie putt.
Meikle followed Brown on 17 by draining a 20-foot putt to finish her round with a 7-over-par 78, giving her a three-day total of 228. She tied with Brown for 42nd. Meikle struggled on the first seven holes, playing 7-over-par, but she posted a birdie on the par-3, 149-yard No. 8 helped her finish the final 11 holes at even par. She also birdied the par-4, 357-yard No. 15.
Niederkohr finished in a tie for 34th with a three-day total of 14-over-par 227 (73-76-78) after her final-round 78. The sophomore posted eight pars on the front nine to make the turn at 1-over-par. She added four more pars on the back nine to help her post a career-high finish at regionals, after tying for 44th as a freshman.
Senior Mandi McConnell (Grand Blanc, Mich./Grand Blanc) started her round with four straight bogeys, but finished the final 14 holes at 3-over-par. She posted back-to-back birdies on No. 6 and No. 7 to help her finish the tournament in a tie for 34th with a three-day score of 227 (71-78-78).
Rose finished in a tie for 25th as the Spartans' highest finisher, although her final round 79 didn't count on the Spartans' final team score. She posted a three-round total of 226 (76-71-79), as she posted nine pars and a birdie on the par-5, 504-yard No. 11 for the Spartans in her final round.
"Today was definitely a struggle," Rose said. "The wind definitely picked up and the pins were in ridiculous places. We knew coming in that the pins were going to be tougher and that we didn't need to shoot as well. At the same time, I think we did a great job of just sticking it out."
Sticking it out was just enough for Rose to reach her third NCAA Championships and helping McConnell, Meikle and Brown reach their second.