It was 49 degrees, cloudy, and drizzly Monday when five Oxford High School girls golf team members pulled into the parking lot at Metamora Golf and Country Club. They popped open the backs of their cars and rooted around for the right combination of hats, hoodies, gloves and rain gear. There were no complaints about the weather as the fivesome strolled down the first fairway of an empty course giggling and sharing stories from the day at school.
They were in their happy place.
Oxford coach Gretchen Gabler, 56, has worked for nine years to create a happy, safe place for her golfers. Bad weather, bad bounces, bad scores are not going to break their spirit – they’ve seen more than most their age, and have developed a mentality to deal with adversity and stay focused on the important things in life, says their coach.
And, aside from a few sprinkles, cold fingers, and searching for that missing floppy rain hat in the bottom of the golf bag, overcoming adversity has not been an issue this fall for the Wildcats. Gabler’s team is enjoying the most successful season in the program’s 28-year history. Oxford won the Oakland Activities Association White championship, and qualified for the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals – both first-time happenings for the program. The Wildcats, No. 8 in the current Michigan Interscholastic Golf Coaches Association Division 1 state rankings, will tee it up Friday and Saturday at Forest Akers West.
“It’s so nice to see (success) for those girls and Gretchen,” said Clarkston coach Lezlie Hallman, who has had a front-row seat watching the rise of Oxford girls golf. “My hat is off to them. They’ve earned everything this year. Gretchen goes above and beyond with those girls, and has worked hard to strengthen our league. Everyone loves her, and her girls. They cheer hard for everyone else on the golf course, and now my girls couldn’t be happier for them; I’m happy for the school – the whole community needs this kind of school success.”
This team’s success is a feel-good story for many after the November 2021 shooting that killed four and injured seven at Oxford High School.
“The shooting is not who we are, but something that happened to us,” Gabler said. “After the shooting, I told the parents ‘I don’t care if we ever win a game – I just want these girls to heal.’ So when I see them smile and giggle and laugh, it’s an amazing sign that they have carried forward.”’
They’ve smiled, giggled, and laughed this season, but they’ve also won.
This fall Oxford won five 18-hole events with five more top-five finishes. They have set school 9- and 18-hole scoring records (307 and 163). They’ve gone from league doormats to league champions over the last three years.
“We are definitely a close-knit team that has really come together since the shooting,” said senior Ellie Gieselman. “Since (the shooting) we’ve tried to play more for our school than for ourselves.”
Last year, Gieselman said, her team appreciated the support, but grew weary of the sympathetic looks when they showed up at events. And then they started carding low numbers.
“That’s happening a lot less now that we’re not at the bottom – people see us now more for how much game we have,” Gieselman said with a proud smile.
It’s been a long climb to the top for the Wildcats. Gabler was a stay-at-home married mom of two adult children when she took the program reins in 2014. She took up the game herself in her 30s and was an Oxford golf mom when her daughter played.
Knowing she wasn’t going to shape swings like a teaching professional, she focused on what she could do.
“In my first few years, I was teaching kids how to hold a club and swing and read greens,” she said. “I knew we weren’t in the same place as other schools in the league, but I knew we could be the team that knows the rules, counts all our strokes, plays with sportsmanship, and has fun.”
Those foundational principles, combined with Gabler’s enthusiasm, changed everything for the program. She soaked up every detail from the MHSAA Coaches Advancement Program classes for new coaches, asked veteran coaches for advice, begged friends and neighbors to encourage their daughters to play golf, and used social media to promote her girls golf program among Oxford-area moms. She guarantees a positive experience for all and refuses to make cuts. Gabler has team bonding events at her home, is visible at all school events, and can tell you each of her team member’s colleges of choice and future dream jobs.
She has an active team page on Facebook and an Instagram account where team members interview each other, competitors, and generally just have fun. The team has grown in size from 8 in 2014 to 30 in 2023.
Oxford golf parent Cari Yankee has five daughters, three of whom have played golf, including senior Lexie. Her twin eighth graders plan to join the squad next year.
“Gretch really loves these girls,” Yankee said. “She is fostering a love of golf, and she makes it a heck of a lot of fun. She never lets them get down on themselves and is so patient with them. She is a wonderful mentor, and as a parent, I never have to worry about the kids because I know how much she really cares for them and loves them. Ask anyone who has played for her, and you won’t find anyone who has a bad word about Gretch. She’s special.”
Gabler considered stepping down as coach a couple of years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic and the death of a former team member deeply impacted her. It was the hugs and support from the girls that brought her back for the 2021 season.
“I just couldn't walk away from those girls. And I’m really glad I didn’t quit because I wouldn’t have been there for them during the shooting, and for this fun season,” Gabler said.
During the 2021 shooting, she texted every member of her team, asking if they were physically safe. They were. In the days after, she arranged a Zoom meeting for the girls with a trauma counselor who worked with survivors of the 2018 Parkland, Fla., school shooting. Their emotional recovery became her primary focus, as she worked to provide them a safe zone where they could talk about the tragedy, or just play golf and have fun.
The team grew closer, Gabler saw healing taking place, and she began to notice something special about these girls.
“This group is different,” Gabler said. “They’re not just great athletes, they are great young women; they are kind, they are Godly – they’re just really good people. Being associated with them has been a great honor.”
The core group playing at the Finals consists of seniors Ellie Gieselman, Ella Flores, Keira Billis, Gabi Wait, and sophomore Katie Pill.
“We knew this season would be special,” Billis said. “We had a good team last year, and everyone worked hard over the summer to get better. We came out and won the first tournament of this season, and knew it was a great sign. And now, we’re off to states.”
Gabler is excited for the girls, and hopes they play well, but won’t be focused on the scoreboard. She simply wants the girls to revel in the moment, perform as well as they can, and just be kids.
Watching them walk side-by-side down the fairway on a cold, drizzly afternoon, Gabler said “Those girls care very much for each other, and for life. They have an understanding about life that many people cannot grasp because they have not faced their own mortality like these girls did at age 16. They are mature beyond their years, and yet they are still kids just having fun.”
Having fun in a safe, happy place, and developing the skills to help succeed in life – it’s what high school athletics is all about.
Ray Hill is a recently retired teacher from East Jackson High School who has done freelance writing for 40 years. He has also coached golf at East Jackson for 27 years and serves as public relations director for the Michigan Interscholastic Golf Coaches Association.
PHOTO From left: Oxford golfers Gabi Wait, Ellie Gieselman, Ella Flores, Keira Billis and Katie Pill. (Photo provided by the Michigan Interscholastic Golf Coaches Association.)
Join Elizabeth Coon as State Champs! takes a look at all of the action from the 2023 Lower Peninsula Girls Golf Finals.