May 6, 2014 10:46:52 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Being a counselor is part of the job description of any coach.
Nobody knows that better than Mississippi State women's golf coach Ginger Brown-Lemm, who had to make sure her team forgot about the Southeastern Conference Championships.
Today, Brown-Lemm will try to help her players remember the good feelings they had last season when Ally McDonald won the NCAA Central Regional title and the team advanced to the NCAA Championships.
That's quite a whirlwind of emotions for any coach to navigate, but Brown-Lemm feels she and the Bulldogs are up for the challenge as they continue to prepare to play in the NCAA Central Regional at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla. It will be the program's first consecutive regional appearances since the 2005 and 2006 seasons.
"I remind them every day that the climate in women's golf has changed and they accomplished that," Brown-Lemm said. "They deserve all the credit for going out and shooting the scores that allow people to think higher expectations are a must here at Mississippi State."
MSU will be the No. 11 seed when action tees off Thursday in the three-day event. The top eight teams at each of the three NCAA regionals will earn a place in the NCAA Championships on May 20-23 at Tulsa Country Club in Tulsa, Okla.
Before the Bulldogs boarded their flight this morning for Stillwater, Oklahoma, Brown-Lemm was convinced her team chalked up its 12th-place finish in the league tournament to one bad round. After the first day, MSU was in last place and seven shots behind the 13th-place team after a 33-over-par 321. The Bulldogs rallied to shoot much a 301 and a 296 on the final two days of the event to give each player confidence entering the postseason. A year ago, MSU finished third with an 8-over-par 872 to clinch its first NCAA Championship appearance. McDonald set the lowest 54-hole score in school history with a 10-under-par 206 to win the individual title by five shots.
"It's just so rare when all five of the players on a team play their worst at the same moment, but that's what happened in first day in Birmingham," McDonald said. "I really want to focus on the good vibes of going back to the state of Oklahoma where the run started last year."
As a No. 11 seed this year, Brown-Lemm knows her team is considered an underdog, but she also knows the expectations are higher to prove its run last season wasn't a fluke.
"I think once again people are not expecting us to do much in this NCAA regional, and I think we like that mentality of being able to surprise again," McDonald said.
No. 4 Arkansas, No. 10 Alabama, No. 16 LSU, and No. 22 Florida will join MSU with top-seeded and No. 2 UCLA. No. 11 Arizona, host No. 15 Oklahoma State, No. 21 North Carolina, Ohio State, Miami (Fla.), and California also will compete,
This season MSU has earned two tournament championships, seven top-10 scorecards and new 18-, 36-, and 54-hole record scores.
Freshman Jessica Peng will join McDonald in trying to push MSU back to the NCAA Championships. Last week, Peng became only the second MSU player to be named to the SEC All-Freshman team. Peng holds the lowest single-season stroke average as a freshman in school history (73.58) and the third-best average of any player in MSU history. She has four top-10 scorecards, including two runner-up medals at The Waverly and Dr. Donnis Thompson Invitational. The Taoyuan, Taiwan, native fired the lowest 36-hole score ever by a Bulldog with a 7-under-par 137 after two rounds in the Betsy Rawls Longhorn Invitational. Peng also owns the lowest 18-, 36-, and 54-hole scores by any freshman in MSU history.
"She is a world-class player I've had to try really hard to keep behind me this season, and sometimes she'll even come out ahead," McDonald said. "I haven't had this type of competition at MSU before this year, and it's a nice luxury."
Karsten Creek is more than 7,400 yards long with bent-grass greens and zoysia fairways, but the wind around the area will cause players to contemplate their shots.
"The zoysia just sets up so nice because you feel like your ball is on a tee in the middle of the fairway," Brown-Lemm said. "I can see us getting down there early and putting those bent grass greens really well."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.