PARADISE – Though it has the ability to unite or divide, the power of sport often goes unnoticed.
At Whitefish Community School in Paradise, its first-year boys and girls golf programs are demonstrating that power, bringing together students from very diverse backgrounds.
With a K-12 enrollment of only 30 students, Whitefish resembles an extended family.
After having initial success at the elementary level, head coach Gerald Roach and assistant coach Chris Saunders introduced the sport of golf to the middle school and high school students last fall.
“It actually began last summer when the superintendent asked us to come up with something in summer school,” Roach said. “It was such a success with the elementary kids, we thought with ours, we would adopt it and get it going this year.”
At 14 members strong, representing seventh through 12th grade, the Rockets are competing in a full slate of dual matches this spring, and with the help of the school and athletic boosters, the program was able to purchase a $12,000 indoor golf simulator to aid in the learning process.
“They are all novices here,” Saunders said. “The challenge is just getting them to start to learn the game. It is a tough sport to play.”
A school the size of Whitefish starting a golf team from scratch is an impressive feat in and of itself, but it’s not the only unique quality of the program.
Per Michigan High School Athletic Association guidelines, sixth-graders Vanessa McNamara and Jacob Johnson serve as communicators for a pair of golfers, working alongside them during practice and match play.
Versed in American Sign Language, McNamara mentors eighth-grader Yasmin, who has a cochlear implant, while Johnson partners with junior Tyler, who is autistic and a chosen mute.
“It’s really cool communicating with someone that can’t talk and use your hands,” McNamara said. “She is actually a really good golfer.”
In accordance with the MHSAA, Johnson and McNamara can only assist Tyler and Yasmin in conversing with teammates or opponents, not with the game’s techniques.
“I would get his clubs ready, watch him while driving, and see if he is doing everything right,” Johnson said. “He knows where the flag is and he knows a lot. I just watch him to make sure he is swinging right.”
Tyler’s grandmother and legal guardian, Sandra Hutchinson, says the small, family-like environment at Whitefish has been a welcome change for Tyler.
“Because we are a small school, it is amazing what we can accomplish,” Hutchinson said. “Everything with school is exciting for Tyler. He jumps up in the morning… ready to go.
“I like everything about our school… just being a smaller school that doesn’t see disabilities. They don’t notice that Yasmin has a cochlear (implant) and that Tyler has Post-its.”
Whitefish continues its season with a dual meet against DeTour, Cedarville and Pickford on Thursday.