Oxford Golfers Excel, Continue to Heal with 1st League Title, Finals Debut

By Ray Hill
Michigan Interscholastic Golf Coaches Association

October 18, 2023

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.

Oxford golfers lead off the course as well.“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.)

Lacrosse Finals Move to U-M Among Headlines as Spring Sports Ramp Up

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

April 9, 2024

The Girls & Boys Lacrosse Finals will be played at University of Michigan Lacrosse Stadium for the first time, one of the most notable changes for this season as sports ramp up for more than 100,000 athletes anticipated to participate this spring for Michigan High School Athletic Association member schools.

The MHSAA sponsors postseason competition each spring in baseball, girls and boys lacrosse, girls soccer, softball, girls and boys track & field, boys golf (Lower and Upper Peninsula) and girls golf (UP), and girls (LP) and boys (UP) tennis.

The U-M Lacrosse Stadium opened for competition in 2018 and seats 2,000 spectators. The Girls Lacrosse Finals will be played Friday, June 7, with Division 1 at 4 p.m. and Division 2 at 7 p.m. The Boys Lacrosse Finals will be played the following day, June 8, with Division 2 at 11 a.m. and Division 1 at 2 p.m.

Girls lacrosse also has a significant format adjustment this season, as games will be played with four 12-minutes quarters instead of the previous two halves, in part to allow coaches more opportunities to provide direct instruction during a game. Two more rules changes are expected to improve flow of play – players awarded a free position outside of the critical scoring area no longer must come to a stop and settled stance before self-starting, and false start penalties outside the critical scoring area have been eliminated.

Several more rules changes will be noticeable this spring:

In boys lacrosse, a change was made to enhance player safety. Play will stop immediately any time a player’s helmet comes off, and that player may not return until the next dead ball after play continues.

Fair and legal starts are a continued emphasis for track & field, and a rule change will allow for movement before the start of the race as long as a competitor does not leave their mark with a hand or a foot after the “set” command, or make forward motion before the starting device is activated.

A significant rule change in softball alters pitch delivery mechanics. The pitcher may now have both feet off the ground at the same time when releasing the ball as long as both feet remain within the 24-inch width of a pitching plate and the pitcher does not replant the pivot foot before delivering the pitch.

Another change in softball requires that a playbook/playcard be worn on the wrist or kept in a back pocket to reduce distractions. If worn by the pitcher, the equipment must be worn on the non-pitching arm. Similarly in baseball, a wristband with plays or instructions will be permitted but must be a single, solid color, and for pitchers may not contain the colors white or gray or be otherwise distracting. Baseball players must wear this wristband on the wrist or forearm, and pitchers may wear one only on their non-pitching arm.

Also in baseball, a rule change allows for one-way communication devices worn by the catcher to receive instructions from the dugout while on defense, for the purpose of calling pitches. The coach must be inside the dugout/bench area to use the communication device.

Golfers now are required to participate in at least four competitions for the high school team prior to representing that school team in an MHSAA Regional or Final. Those four regular-season competitions may be 9 or 18-hole events.

In tennis, for the first time in Lower Peninsula play, a No. 1 doubles flight from a non-qualifying team will be able to advance from its Regional to Finals competition. To do so, that No. 1 doubles flight must finish first or second at its Regional, and the No. 1 singles player from that team also must have qualified for the Finals individually by finishing first or second in Regional play.

On the soccer pitch, two officiating-related changes will be especially noticeable. Officials now may stop the clock to check on an injured player without that player being required to leave the match – previously that player would have to sub out. Also, categories for fouls have been redefined: careless (which is a foul but does not receive a card), reckless (a foul with a yellow card) and excessive force (foul with red card). 

The 2023-24 Spring campaign culminates with postseason tournaments, as the championship schedule begins with the Upper Peninsula Girls & Boys Golf and Boys Tennis Finals during the week of May 27 and wraps up with Girls Soccer, Baseball and Softball Finals on June 15. Here is a complete list of winter tournament dates:

Districts – May 23-June 1
Regional Semifinals – June 5
Regional Finals, Quarterfinals – June 8
Semifinals – June 13-14
Finals – June 15

LP Boys Regionals – May 28-June 1
UP Girls & Boys Finals – May 29, 30, 31 or June 1
LP Boys Finals – June 7-8

Boys Lacrosse
Pre-Regionals – May 10-15
Regionals – May 16-29
Quarterfinals – May 31 or June 1
Semifinals – June 5
Finals – June 8

Girls Lacrosse
Pre-Regionals – May 16-18, or May 20
Regionals – May 22-June 1
Semifinals – June 5
Finals – June 7

Girls Soccer
Districts – May 22-June 1
Regionals – June 4-8
Semifinals – June 11-12
Finals – June 14-15

Districts – May 23-June 1
Regionals – June 8
Quarterfinals – June 11
Semifinals – June 13-14
Finals – June 15

LP Girls Regionals – May 15-18
UP Boys Finals – May 29, 30, 31 or June 1
LP Girls Finals – May 31-June 1

Track & Field
Regionals – May 16-18
Finals – June 1