Few local athletes have shown the steady improvement in one season that Spring Lake standout Phoebe Saunders has.
After jumping into the playing rotation as a freshman on the soccer team and battling to crack the top five on a loaded golf team roster, Saunders emerged as a go-to performer and trusted leader in all three of her disciplines as a sophomore athlete for the Lakers.
As a golfer, Saunders was a steady scorer for the Lakers, often coming in as the No. 3 golfer in the line-up behind veterans Madelyn Nelson and Hannah Klein. With her competitive spirit and dedication to the game, Saunders quickly became a force to be reckoned with on the links, as she finished fourth in the final conference meet of the spring to earn O-K Blue first team All-Conference honors.
Saunders added a third-place overall finish at the Division 3 regional meet with an 88 to earn All-Regional honors, as well. At the state finals, the talented sophomore carded a two-day score of 177 (89, 88) to help the Lakers cap off the season with a third-place overall team finish.
SPRING LAKE GIRLS GOLF COACH GEORGE BITNER
On Saunders as an athlete
"She really improved from her freshman year to her sophomore year. She's very intelligent. She asked questions and was always competitive with herself and others. When she was a freshman, she would follow Anna Kramer's training regime at practice and started picking up on little things she could improve on.
"She's someone who focuses on her job and doesn't get distracted. I always tell my girls that you have to remember to play the course and not the opponent. Sometimes, Phoebe gets caught up in that because she's so darn competitive, but I never have to worry about whether or not she cares."
On goals entering the season
"She nearly broke into the lineup as a freshman last year, but we had a loaded lineup of veterans. This year, I knew we needed her to be as consistent as possible, because we were replacing a lot of experience. She really took it upon herself to become one of the best golfers on the team. Our goal was for her to be toward the top of the lineup at every meet, and she was consistently either second or third."
On first impressions of Saunders
"I could tell right away that she was a competitor. She hadn't played a ton of golf before, but she wanted to be the best. I knew she was a great athlete because she also played soccer and basketball, so it really just a matter of how much time she was going to dedicate to the game.
On breakthrough moment
"I believe it was a conference jamboree at Comstock Park early in September. She broke through with a personal best score lower than 40. She ended up with a 38 or 39, and she was pretty excited about it. She also hit 40 right on the nose a few meets after that."
On career potential
"I'm expecting her to continue to improve next fall. She has the natural skill to be between 76 and 80 on a given day for an 18-hole event, and I wouldn't be surprised if she and Hannah both put up some impressive scores this fall."
On favorite moments coaching Saunders
"I always enjoy spending time with the kids during practice. That's when you get to know what they are all about and Phoebe is an absolute sweetheart. She's the kind of girl you wish you could adopt because she's so nice and polite, gets along with other girls, and she's a leader by nature."
LEADER OF THE LAKESHOW
When the winter season rolled around, Saunders could be found leading the fastbreak attack of the Spring Lake girls basketball team. Saunders took the reins as the starting point guard, filling the role of former four-year varsity starter Reiko Johnson.
Despite the pressure of leading a team as an underclassman, Saunders quickly took charge. Her quick first step and court vision made her a lethal dribble-drive threat and her ability to find an open teammate was apparent as soon as the season began.
"She played junior varsity as a freshman last year, and we know she is capable of running, shooting and dribbling," said Spring Lake girls basketball coach Cavin Mohrhardt of his new point guard before the season started. "We aren't going to ask her to do what Reiko did. She's a different player with a different skill set. She has excellent court vision, and we're hoping that will help her be a distributor and facilitator when we get out on the open court and start running in transition."
Early on in the season, the smooth sophomore guard attempted to be a little too unselfish; often passing up open looks to find a teammate. After the Lakers opened the first half of the season with a 4-7 mark, Saunders and her teammates began to assert themselves more.
Saunders quickly went from a role player to a certified playmaker. She began to take more risks on offense, and more often than not, those turned into rewards for the Lakers. The team responded with a six-game winning streak from Jan. 20 to Feb. 13 and jumped back into the conference race.
During that stretch, Saunders was a regular statsheet stuffer, as she would consistently find herself with near double-doubles in points and assists. The team would ultimately fall short of a conference title and didn't have enough firepower to dethrone Oakridge in the district tournament.
However, the returning starters for next season give the program an optimistic outlook and no one is more important to that outlook than Saunders.
"We're pretty excited about the players we have coming back next year," said Mohrhardt after their season-ending loss to Oakridge. "Phoebe has really grown a lot over the course of the season and you can just tell she's playing with so much more confidence. She was taking shots and making plays late in the season that she would have never made in December. With our two bigs (Jenna Core and Madeline Zenas) coming back and Phoebe running the show, we like the core group we have coming back, and we think we could end up being pretty good next season."
PLAYMAKER ON THE PITCH
Saunders would continue to lead the Spring Lake attack in the spring, but this time as a shifty midfielder on the soccer pitch.
As a sophomore, Saunders totaled 14 goals and 18 assists to help lead Spring Lake to an 18-3 overall record, an O-K Blue Conference Championship, a district title and a regional finals appearance.
With Saunders quarterbacking the attack, the Lakers finished the season with 102 goals scored and only eight goals allowed.
SPRING LAKE GIRLS SOCCER COACH BECKY MAY
On what makes Saunders special
"In the game of soccer, size, speed and experience dominate the pitch. We all have seen someone overcome at least one of these obstacles in order to be successful. But overcome all three? And overcome them to the level of success Phoebe has had? In three sports? To say Phoebe Saunders is special is absolutely true, but also woefully insufficient.
"Phoebe is a testament to the power of the mind. She is smart (4.0 student). But I am not talking about that kind of smarts. I am talking about the power of creativity. While her teammates storm into battle, Phoebe glides out onto the field with a kind of effortless determination. To be sure, Phoebe is working. And having physical ‘inconveniences' I will call them, I can tell you she is working harder than any other player I have ever coached."
On what makes Saunders a skillful soccer player
"Phoebe's work is different. Where others are effective, Phoebe is efficient. Where others are productive, Phoebe is inventive. Where you might expect to see determination, you are treated with sophistication.
"Here's what I mean. It is one thing to see a play developing. It is quite another to see it before anyone else does. And in fact, she sees it so quickly that she is able to orchestrate the course of the play simply by her anticipation. It is in that way, Phoebe pulls the rug out from under her opponents. They proceed with what they expect will happen next. But they do not realize that Phoebe is redirecting what they are anticipating so as to generate the outcome which best benefits her team.
"Yes, Phoebe is young. But in her play, she is mature and wise beyond her years. Yes, she's small, but in her execution, she is the biggest player on the field. Yes, she's isn't physically the faster girl on the field, but her mind works at such an impressive level that you quickly forget she has any obstacles at all. Others can be described in one word, but Phoebe needs two — extraordinarily perception."