Illini women's golf has quite the story to tell — and it's not done yet.

Illini women's golf has quite the story to tell — and it's not done yet.

URBANA — Four NCAA trophies sit on a table in the middle of the atrium at the Demirjian Indoor Golf Practice Facility.

All four mark the accomplishments of the Illinois men's golf team in the past decade, including a national runner-up finish in 2013 and third-place results in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

It's the sort of consistent production on the national stage that Renee Slone's Illinois women's golf program hopes to achieve one day.

The signs exist that Slone's Illini, who share the same golf digs in Urbana as the men's team, are becoming more of a player on the national level.

The motivation is certainly there.

"Little by little, over the last couple years here, we've been making those strides," said Slone, who was named the Big Ten's coach of the year last month, the first such honor for the program.

"We continue to grow and develop and get closer and closer, so it's an exciting position to put ourselves in.

"Being in this environment day in and day out, how can one not be motivated? Seeing (those trophies) every single day, it gives you something to work for, and having that right there in the forefront of your mind, it's a constant reminder."

Last year's near miss at the NCAA regionals only added more incentive.

Seeking its first berth into the NCAA championships, the Illini finished just two strokes behind Northwestern for the final qualifying spot.

"I think it was a great motivator just knowing that we can be in that position and we didn't play bad golf. We played good golf and it ended up being a little short," junior Tristyn Nowlin said of last season's seventh-place regional finish. "I think going in with the same mindset, 'Hey, we can do this. We've been in that position before.'

"Everybody looks back and thinks it could have been one shot here, one shot there. Just having that in the back of your mind, especially while you're practicing knowing, 'Oh, this is what I could have done better. This is what could have made it different' has been a huge motivation."

A year later, Illinois returns to the NCAA regionals for the third straight season. The 19th-ranked Illini, who are fresh off a runner-up finish at last month's Big Ten championships in Maineville, Ohio, play in the East Lansing, Mich., regional. The 54-hole regional — that features 18 teams and is hosted at Forest Akers West Golf Course — starts today and continues through Wednesday when the top six teams will advance to the NCAA championships in Fayetteville, Ark.

Illinois — seeded seventh behind defending national champion Stanford, Arizona, Kent State, UCLA, host Michigan State and Campbell — arrived in East Lansing on Saturday before a practice round on Sunday. The Illini will tee off at 7:58 a.m. today from the first tee and are paired with Baylor and North Carolina for the opening round.

Unlike last season, when the Illini had three seniors play for them at the NCAA regional (Grace Park, Chayanid Prapassarangkul and Dana Gattone), this year's group has been led by a dynamic freshman duo.

Kornkamol Sukaree and Crystal Wang — both of whom were All-Big Ten first-team selections — have made an immediate impact for Illinois, ranking first and second, respectively, on the team in stroke average this spring.

Sukaree's 72.56 stroke average and Wang's 72.81 rank ahead of Nowlin (73.33) and Bing Singhsumalee (73.63), the lone Illinois senior.

"We are pretty young, but I think for us we're just having fun with it," said Nowlin, who has played in only three tournaments this spring after undergoing wrist surgery in February but did compete at the inaugural Augusta National Women's Amateur last month, where she finished tied for 52nd at 9-over 153. "We know what process works for each individual but we also know what our team goal is and what our purpose is. I do feel like we have a good vision of that."

Singhsumalee, who perhaps more than any of the Illini golfers can speak to the upward mobility of the Illinois women's golf program, has been a stalwart in the lineup since her freshman season.

The Naperville native and three-time All-Big Ten selection, including first-team honors in 2018, said there's a "friendly competition" between the men's and women's golf programs, especially with the level of success Mike Small's team has enjoyed.

"It's just knowing that we have the same resources as them," Singhsumalee said. "We are heading up in that direction. ... Our ranking has definitely gotten better since I've been here. It's just the team atmosphere also and our energy is pretty different. There's a lot of love. You don't have to rely on only yourself to bring your spirits up. You can use your teammates as a way to propel yourself forward."

That feeling of camaraderie is the result of team retreats, like the one before this spring season when Illinois decided to dedicate the ensuing campaign to Singhsumalee.

"She's our 68," Nowlin said of Singhsumalee, explaining that the number, which equates to a good score for a round of golf, is meant to symbolize who or what each member of the Illini is playing for.

Illinois wants to send Singhsumalee out with a trip to the program's first-ever NCAA championships, which run from May 17-22.

Slone, a former Illini standout and Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame member, had a hard time explaining what it would mean for her program to reach the next stage. But, if all of the pieces come together at the conclusion of Wednesday's final round in East Lansing, it would mean an extra two weeks of golf. More importantly, it means a piece of history.

"Any time that an individual or a team does anything that hasn't been accomplished before it's a pretty big milestone," Slone said. "A lot of growth has taken place this year, both on and off the golf course, and especially with being such a young team and this is a very closely-knit group of young women. They really have developed some strong relationships over the course of the past nine months, so at the end of the day we just have to go out and focus on ourselves, stick to our process and do what we've been doing all season long that has led to the successes that we've had. We'll see how things all work out for us."

It's been a while

With the Illinois women's golf team seeking its first-ever trip to the NCAA championship this week in East Lansing, Mich., copy editor JOE VOZZELLI JR. takes a look at a four other notable postseason droughts Illini programs would love to see end:

Football

The Illini's last bowl win happened on Dec. 31, 2011, when they snapped a six-game losing streak by beating UCLA 20-14 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. A 60-yard touchdown pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to A.J. Jenkins and Terry Hawthorne's 39-yard interception return sealed the bowl win in San Francisco.

Men's basketball

Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson drained consecutive three-pointers to give seventh-seeded Illinois the lead with six minutes left as the Illini pulled out a 57-49 win over 10th-seeded Colorado in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Austin, Texas, on March 22, 2013. That was Illinois' last win in the Big Dance.

Women's basketball

The Theresa Grentz-led Illini reached the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2000. Allison Curtin (22 points) and Susan Blauser (20 points) lifted Illinois to a 73-58 victory over Utah in Ames, Iowa, on March 17, 2000 — the program's last NCAA tournament win. The Illini lost to No. 7 Iowa State in the second round.

Women's gymnastics

Illinois has reached the NCAA finals four times in program history but not since 2014. The Illini placed sixth at the national meet in Birmingham, Ala., in 2014. This past season, Illinois failed to advance out of the Ann Arbor Regional semifinal, as Nadalie Walsh's team finished third behind UCLA and Nebraska.

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Golf, Sports
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