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It has already occurred to Mikayla Dubnik that the plane ride home from Maricopa, Arizona, on Sunday evening won’t be consumed by a 40-page reading assignment in one of her textbooks. That, in itself, “is amazing.”

Finals have wrapped at Mercer University, leaving Dubnik, a sophomore, and her teammates with a lightness to focus on the golf at this week’s National Golf Invitational and, for once, the pool. Rounds end in relaxation, not the familiar rat race.

In her postseason debut on Friday, Dubnik fired an opening 4-under 68 at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes, leading Mercer into fourth on the eight-team leaderboard. With more challenging hole locations and wind gusts in play for Saturday’s second round, Dubnik backed up to 76 but still helped Mercer maintain its fourth-place position on the leaderboard at 17 over.

The Bears trail leader Penn State by eight shots, with Santa Clara and Iowa in the No. 2 and 3 positions entering the final round. Penn State’s Michelle Cox leads the individual race at 6 under.

It’s an every-woman-counts scenario for Mercer this week. Head coach Michele Drinkard traveled four players to the NGI. One player remains at home after taking a redshirt season and another entered the transfer portal at the end of the season (per Mercer policy, a player in the transfer portal is no longer part of the team).

Earlier in the season, Mercer competed at the Florida State Match-Up with four players when Dubnik was unable to compete due to illness. That provided experience for Dubnik’s three teammates but to Dubnik, playing as a four-woman squad this week is about never giving up.

“At the end of the day, every score counts,” she said. “You just have to fight through every one even if you aren’t playing your best.”

Dubnik found the atmosphere at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes heartwarming from the standpoint that officials have worked hard to support college golfers who didn’t make it past their conference.

Drinkard, a women’s college golf veteran who has been at Mercer for eight years, feels it too.

“The vibe of the trip is to celebrate and the atmosphere has been incredible at the club, the staff, the green superintendents – they all want us there and it’s just been very special,” she said. “It doesn’t have the vibe of cutthroat. It has just a nice vibe of celebration of these teams and to create history.”

The Mercer women’s team has just four players at the National Golf Invitational. (Photo by Landon Ringler)

Mercer last competed in the postseason in 2021, when they finished 14th at an NCAA regional in Louisville. Drinkard, a longtime proponent of the NGI, sees college golf’s new postseason event as an opportunity that will grow the sport.

“As a whole, it’s promotion for our program. The teams in the top 100 are a lot closer in competitiveness than it seems in the ranking, as shown by the schools that are now in the final,” she said. “It gives us another opportunity to showcase our school, showcase our program but also to grow and get experience so that we either can play in this tournament next year or hopefully a step up to the NCAA as well, but you only get better if you experience it.”

Back on campus at Mercer, in Macon, Georgia, the university is firmly behind women’s golf’s historic postseason appearance, so much so that the idea of postseason rings has been floated. The university is on board to do everything for the NGI that would normally be done to celebrate an NCAA berth, Drinkard said.

Mercer will play in the groups ahead of the final three teams on Sunday, but that’s OK with Drinkard.

“I think you have to be careful about getting in tune with what other teams are doing and just jump right into your own process and take care of business.”

Mercer leads the field in par-4 scoring, and every player birdied the par-4 second on Tuesday. It was at that point that Drinkard’s mom, back home in Alabama, sent a text prompting her daughter to check the scores.

Drinkard isn’t one to hang on Golfstat, and neither are her players. Like they have all week, Mercer’s fab four will lean on each other.

“The chemistry between this group, they are so uplifting and positive with each other,” Drinkard said. “They’ve come out here with, ‘Hey, let’s just go take it to this golf course and whatever happens, happens.’”