"What's funny is, we're actually the same age," Valery Plata said. "The three of us are 19. I'm a little young to be a junior."
Plata came to MSU earlier than what's considered "the norm," but that hasn't stopped her from dominating on the greens and fairways of the Big Ten the same as any other member of the small women's golf roster.
Regardless of age, Plata has proved herself a worthy, old hand at the neck of her clubs. That showed last season when the 19-year-old was named Big Ten Golfer of the Year for the 2019-20 tour.
Plata first got into golf when she was in primary school, around the age of eight. Despite her household not being deemed a considerably "athletic" one, the grip of golf still found her through her brother's best friend.
After realizing a fire was growing, her parents fanned the flames and pushed a country club membership into their hands. It took a bit, some pressure, but finding your calling is one of the best feelings this life has to offer, and Plata was not shy at running with that once it was discovered.
"It's given me a lot of opportunities since I started playing," Plata said. "At first, it was just very recreational and a great chance to be outside, meet people and have fun with friends. Now, it's translated into traveling, again meeting people from all over the world, coming to college at Michigan State and a lot of things really."
As a freshman, she was a part of the starting lineup for nine of the tournaments. She finished the 2018-19 season ranked fourth on the team with a 75.3 average, after having her best finish of the season at the Tar Heel Invitational, where she took 14th with an even-par 216 through three rounds.
That same season, she was one of four Spartans to earn the Women's Golf Coaches Association Scholar All-American accolades.
As a sophomore, she was also named to the All-Big Ten First Team. During the 2019-20 season, that had been cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, she recorded her first-career win while helping MSU to the team title, again, at the Tar Heel Invitational – she had carded the second-lowest 54-hole tournament total in school history with an 11-under-par 205 with round scores of 69-68-68.
While the pandemic rained strong, Plata paraded through the summer of 2020, making it all the way to the semifinals of the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship – here, she earned the No. 2 seed in match play after finishing 2-under-par in stroke play.
Most recently, as a junior at the Indiana University Spring Challenge, Plata was one of the five Spartans to occupy the top six spots after scoring the lowest round of her career at 7-under-par 65 during day one – this was also the third-lowest score in program history.
"It was a little bit surreal, I want to say," Plata said. "I've been kind of working hard this whole spring semester, more in this last month or so, and it's good to see some results paying off. It was just a lot of fun to be out there, to have a win with the team and kind of leading into the part of the season that matters most."
While the last 13 months haven't been exactly easy for anyone, Plata has found her way back from the depths of struggle. It hasn't been easy, she made that clear, but it's paid off.
"I didn't know what to do or what to occupy my time with," Plata said. She went through the first three months of lockdown without golf, and it was hard to find things she enjoyed outside of it.
However, there were some benefits to the time off. She said it gave her perspective and allowed her to work on things that matter when they matter. For example, when she's practicing, she's only practicing. Or, when she's doing homework, she's only doing homework.
"I came here when I was very young when I was 17," Plata said about her growth. "I didn't really talk much with my teammates, or other people really. I was kind of a loner. I would do just my own thing and worry about myself and kind of let other people do their own things. Now, I feel like I'm more open to the people around me, my teammates, my coaches and everyone I recognize or I meet. It's kind of gotten easier for me to just have a conversation."
"I've broken out of my shell," Plata said.
MSU women's golf will steamroll into the Big Ten Championships on April 23-25.
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