A week after tragedy, Spartans give Michigan State reason to smile
MELBOURNE, Fla. – Two days before the Michigan State women’s golf team was slated to compete in the Moon Golf Invitational, a program donor invited Spartans head coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll, assistant Zach Rosendale and eight players to play Mountain Lake, an exclusive Seth Raynor design in Lake Wales, Florida, about an hour southwest of Orlando.
The bucket-list round was practice for the Big Ten Championship, to be played later this spring on another Raynor course, Fox Chapel, outside of Pittsburgh.
But it was also therapeutic for a team still grieving.
“It was just so peaceful,” said Slobodnik-Stoll, who after the round took her players to nearby Bok Tower Gardens, a 250-acre contemplative garden and bird sanctuary that dates to the 1920s and features the 205-foot-tall Singing Tower that offers some of the most picturesque views in the entire state.
Toward the end of their visit, the Spartans gathered in front of the tower for a team photo.
“Looking at that picture and seeing them all smile,” Slobodnik-Stoll said, “that was one of those moments, for me, where I thought, ‘We’re going to be OK.’”
That was Friday. Just four nights earlier, a 43-year-old gunman with no ties to Michigan State killed three students and injured five others in a shooting at two different locations on the university’s main campus. Three members of the women’s golf team were locked down in the athletics building until 1 a.m. Tuesday before being escorted out by armed S.W.A.T. Team members.
Later that morning, Michigan State’s athletics director, Alan Haller, called a mandatory department Zoom meeting and canceled all sports activities for the next two days. By that time, however, all eight of Slobodnik-Stoll’s rostered players had already gathered in the clubhouse at the Country Club of Lansing.
So, the Spartans held an impromptu meeting of their own.
“A lot of talking, and a lot of sadness,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “It affected everyone.”
Each of the eight players were given the option to go home or play golf. It was a surprisingly beautiful day for mid-February, 51 degrees and sunny.
No one left.
“I know my players well enough to know that they didn’t want to just sit around staring at the walls all day,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “They had already done that the whole evening prior.”
Slobodnik-Stoll also knew that she couldn’t leave anyone behind as the team traveled to Florida for its second tournament of the spring, which was set to start that Sunday at Suntree Country Club.
Michigan State was originally supposed to bring just its five starters – Leila Raines, Brooke Biermann, Katie Lu, Shannon Kennedy and Valentina Rossi. But Slobodnik-Stoll informed her supervisor that she wanted to take her two freshman, Paula Balanzategui and Caroline McConnell, and senior Nina Rissi, as well.
Slobodnik-Stoll didn’t care how much it’d cost. (She told the team’s travel agent to just book the tickets; she preferred not to see the receipt.)
She didn’t care if the NCAA declined to waive its requirement limiting the number of student-athletes that teams can travel with. (The governing body quickly approved the waiver.)
“Whether we petitioned it or not, I was bringing the whole team,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “I wasn’t going to leave anyone at home. It was an easy decision. I knew I had the support of the department. And the players had the choice to do what they wanted to do. If they didn’t feel comfortable going or playing, they did not have to.
“And their choice was for all of us to stay together.”
The Spartans arrived in Orlando on Thursday afternoon via two different flights. The tournament then created individual spots in the field for Balanzategui and Rissi. And Suntree offered up a Monday tee time on its other 18-hole course for McConnell, who is redshirting this season.
All that was left was to compete.
Prior to Sunday’s practice round, Slobodnik-Stoll huddled her team to go over their gameplan for the next few days. Sure, it was a golf course none of them had seen before, but perhaps more importantly, the Spartans needed to be prepared to play with heavy hearts.
They marked their balls – and even forearms – with the initials of the three slain students.
Their competitors joined them in wearing green ribbons on their hats and golf bags.
Then the Spartans put their tees in the ground, and off they went.
“And they did an awesome job,” Slobodnik-Stoll said.
After a slow start to the 54-hole tournament, Michigan State rallied in Tuesday’s final round with the best score of the day by three shots, a 12-under 276 that moved the Spartans up five spots on a leaderboard loaded with top-25 programs and into fifth. (LSU won the event by nine shots over Northwestern.)
Raines, a junior from Galena, Ohio, tied for the individual title thanks to a closing 7-under 65, a career-best score, before Augusta’s Mirabel Ting hooped a 40-foot eagle putt on the second playoff hole for the right to take home the first-place trophy.
Slobodnik-Stoll was happy to inform Raines that the record books would still recognize the performance as her first college victory – well, first official victory. Three falls ago, with the Big Ten not competing because of the pandemic, Michigan State held an intrasquad tournament to replace its canceled home event, the Mary Fossum Invitational. Raines won the “COVIDational,” and she was awarded, fittingly, with a package of toilet paper.
By Tuesday evening, after an emotional week, tissues were probably more appropriate.
“I think what we accomplished this week was incredible,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “It was the toughest week of my coaching career. … Being able to bring the whole team, having them all make that choice that they wanted to be together. They overcame some obstacles, I’ll say that.”
Last Friday night, Michigan State’s baseball and wrestling teams posted the university’s first victories since the shooting, the former coming from behind to defeat rival Michigan on the diamond.
Now, Raines was bringing a trophy of her own back to East Lansing, where the healing would continue.
While technically the runner-up hardware, the small, wooden prize undoubtedly represented more than that: a meaningful win not just for Raines, but for all of Michigan State.
Something to smile about.