Kent State's Pimnipa Panthong on day two of the NCAA Women's Championship
(Photo courtesy of Kent State Athletics)
STILLWATER, Okla. – Kent State hasn’t finished outside the top 6 yet this season. Normally, a team doesn’t judge its performance based on its position relative to the sixth or eighth spot on the leaderboard, but this is the postseason and the rules have changed – at least for now.
It takes a top-6 finish to get out of regionals, and a top-8 finish to make it to match play at the NCAA Championship. Kent State, at 19 over and tied for sixth after two rounds at Karsten Creek, is in the right neighborhood and this time it feels familiar.
“Obviously this is a lot tougher field, but we’ve never concerned ourselves with some of those other things,” Kent State head coach Greg Robertson said. “We just go out and play golf.”
In two more rounds, this 24-team field will be narrowed by two thirds as match play begins. Last year, Kent State was in that mix but lost to Northwestern in the first match. It was by far the best national-championship finish in the program’s 20-year history. This marks the sixth time Kent State has qualified for the NCAA finals.
In Robertson’s five-year tenure at the helm, the Golden Flashes have improved step by step – climbing the rankings, shaving strokes off their scoring average, winning events (they did that three times this season) and now giving themselves the opportunity to compete for a national title.
Kent State players would do well to feed off of Robertson’s cool. He and assistant coach Maddi Swaney, a 2009 Kent State graduate, try not to make a big deal out of the little things and keep their players relaxed. Their coaching philosophy is to spend an entire round with a player or stay mostly to the side.
“All of our players are really independent, and we always try to harp on their independence,” Swaney said. “We tell them, how many tournaments do you play when we’re not around? How many golf shots do you hit when we’re not around?”
Swaney has walked the past two days with junior Michaela Finn, who has put up rounds of 75-77 so far at Karsten Creek. Player and coach made that decision knowing that Finn had struggled earlier this season to put a good finish on a tournament. Every round is important at NCAAs, and Finn’s second-round 77 counted as the team’s No. 4 score on Saturday when Karoline Stormo posted 90. Stormo’s round included six double-bogeys, which illustrates that Karsten has teeth. Miss the fairway, and you might as well add a shot – it can get out of hand quickly.
But where one player faltered, another picked up. Sophomore Pimnipa Panthong posted an even-par 72 that was aided in large part by a 67-yard hole-out for eagle on the par-5 first.
“(Karsten) is not too hard,” she shrugged good-naturedly after the round. “The only thing is the wind, but not a lot of wind today.”
As Panthong relived the highlights of her round just off the 18th green Saturday evening, she clutched a dog-eared sheet of hole locations with highlights and scribbles. There were no course secrets hidden here, despite the fact that Robertson once called Stillwater home. He was a member of the Cowboys golf team from 1993-97 (Oklahoma State won the NCAA Championship in 1995, but Robertson wasn’t in the starting lineup) and returned as a volunteer assistant in 2001.
He knows Karsten.
“I’ve played this course I don’t know how many times – three years in college and a bunch of times after that,” Robertson said. “I feel like I know it pretty well, but ultimately, they’re the ones who have to hit the shots.”
There’s preparation and then there’s over-preparation, so Robertson and Swaney decided not to try and tell their players every detail. Instead, they focused on the bits and pieces around the golf course they thought were most important – a few spots targets off the tee and a few specific areas to hit on the greens.
Kent State did not arrive in this position overnight. In fact, getting here was a process that took multiple seasons. Robertson ushered in a new level of competition when he arrived at Kent State that began with a top-30 ranking, a handful of tournament titles and finally, last year’s quarterfinal run.
The growth should continue because as Robertson notes, this year’s squad is made up of a junior, two sophomores and two freshmen. The three older members were part of last year’s quarterfinal team.
“Last year was certainly a good learning experience to be put in that position, and then we brought most of them back,” Robertson said. “…They’re all pretty experienced players on a high level, so I think they probably draw a little bit from those experiences too to help them in tournaments like this.”
The foundation is solid in Kent, Ohio.
ABOUT THE NCAA Division I Women's Championship
24 teams and 12 individuals not on a qualifying
team make up the field for the championship of
Division I women's golf.
After 72 holes of stroke play, the individual
champion is crowned, and the low 8 teams advance
match play to determine the team champion.
View Complete Tournament Information