ATHENS, Ga. -- When Ginger Brown-Lemm took over as coach of the Mississippi State women’s golf team three years ago, she said she had to assess the general state of the program first and then figure out who she needed to recruit to help it improve.

One year later, Brown-Lemm found Ally McDonald, who is now a sophomore making a run at top individual honors in the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship at the University of Georgia Golf Course. McDonald shot her third consecutive under-par round Thursday, posting a 2-under 70 that left her at 7-under 209 through the first three rounds of the tournament. She finished the third round tied for second with Alabama's Stephanie Meadow behind Southern California's Annie Park. Park shot a 70 on Thursday and is 9-under for the tournament.

It has been quite an impressive showing for McDonald and for Mississippi State as a team. They are all playing in their first NCAA championship.

Asked what McDonald has meant to her program, Brown-Lemm smiled broadly.

“Oh, my, taking over three years ago, we were ranked No. 127 in the nation," Brown-Lemm said. "That first year you just kind of try to figure out where you are and who you need to get. She’s a Fulton, Mississippi lady and we were blessed to keep her in the state. We knew she would be the flagship to help us get this thing turned around. And it has been just that.”

McDonald was recruited by several other schools, including South Carolina, Arkansas and Ole Miss. But she knew where she wanted to attend school and play golf pretty much all along.

“My family and I grew up Mississippi State fans,” McDonald said. “We had season tickets and went to all the football games. I just kind of grew up as a Bulldog.

“Looking at other places, I just didn’t feel as at home as I did at Mississippi State. I knew a few of the girls that were already there. I think the biggest thing whenever you want to go to college is to go wherever you feel most at home, most comfortable. Mississippi State is where I wanted to be and I’m glad I chose it.”

So is Coach Brown-Lemm.

McDonald’s steady play at the NCAA tournament has been a microcosm of the sort of year she has put together as the program’s flagship. She opened with a 2-under round of 70 and carded a 3-under 69 in the second round before Thursday.

McDonald entered the tournament on a roll, having scored rounds of 69-69-68 for a 10-under total of 206 that earned her individual medalist honors in the NCAA Central Regional.  She’s made 109 birdies on the year, 11 in the NCAA championships, improving her school record with each one she records.

“She’s had an incredibly solid year on the whole,” Brown-Lemm said. “She’s worked hard on her golf game this year, and still managed to make some great grades as well. But she’s really focused in on fine-tuning some aspects of her short game. She got a new driver and is hitting that really well right now. It’s just all coming together at just the right time.”

McDonald’s 2-under 70 on Thursday could have been even better. She narrowly missed at least three makeable birdie putts. Brown-Lemm said getting those few putts to drop in key situations is part of the growing process that McDonald continues to go through as she gets better and better.

“She’s shot 69 a bazillion times this year, and those could have been 66s and 67s,” Brown-Lemm said. “You almost have to learn how to break 70 first, and then understand the dynamics of going lower than 69. I think she’s trying to figure out how to do that now, and how to handle it emotionally and take it one shot at a time, which has been our mentality this whole year.”

McDonald has been using that approach since she played for Itawamba Agricultural High School and became the first female in history to win the Mississippi boys’ state title.

“Growing up in Mississippi, after [current Mississippi State teammate and fellow Mississippi native] Mary Langdon and a few of the other ones were finished with high school, I was basically the only one left who was competing and didn’t have any other girls left to play with at my high school,” McDonald said. “So that was basically the option I wanted to take that was going to make me a better player in the long run.

“I did not play the women’s tees. Growing up, we played from the men’s tees. Depending on how the golf course was set up, it could be anywhere from 6,000 yards to the [boys’] high-school championship, where I played 6,800 to 7,000. I played really well there. That was a big thing for me to carry over into my collegiate career, because competing against all the boys was difficult. It’s a different atmosphere and they play completely different. But it challenged me and in turn made me a better player.”

Suffice it to say that the 6,372-yard, par-72 layout at Georgia, tough though it may be, is far from intimidating to McDonald.

“I’m in position to try to make something happen [Friday],” McDonald said. “Really, that’s all you can hope for.”

She seems to believe she can win the individual championship. And that, according to Brown-Lemm, is perhaps most important heading into Friday’s final round.

“Ally never gets very far off,” Brown-Lemm said. “She plays with a lot of confidence and trusts her golf swing, which is critical when you get to a level like this. She’s played extremely solid the whole year. And I think belief is a vicious tool. If you have it, you can do it; if you don’t, that doubt can creep in and keep you from championships.”