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CatchMark Profile of the Week: Coach’s cancer battle pulls Montague golf closer in title defense

Phil Kerr is architect and heart and soul of Wildcats’ powerhouse, which is as much a family as it is a program.

MONTAGUE – Some of the best memories for Montague’s girls golfers on their road to a second-straight state title this fall center around the team van.

“I don’t know, I think every time we’re with each other we have a good time. We’re in the van all the time, we’re always laughing,” giggling senior Gabby Moreau said during a lively, recent round-table interview with her teammates. “Everything’s funny in the van – I don’t know why.”

The Wildcats are so comfortable around each other, that they’re better equipped to handle the not-so-pleasant things in life. They’re like a family that way.

When the patriarch of that golf family was diagnosed with cancer in late-July, it made the Wildcats’ challenge of defending their Division 4 state championship even greater, but it also pulled them closer than ever before.

Coach Phil Kerr, 36, is battling Ewing’s sarcoma. The form of cancer is quite rare, especially for adults. It can spread from the initial tumor, but Kerr said he was extremely lucky to discover it early and it has not spread so far.

Kerr began routine chemotherapy treatments in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids at the end of August, around the time golf season was starting. Those treatments will continue until late winter. He’ll undergo surgery to remove the tumor in the coming months, and he said as long as it does not return, his prognosis is very good.

As architect of Montague’s powerhouse girls golf program, Kerr is characterized by his girls for his confidence, determination and selflessness. They say he may be a little obsessed about golf, but he’s very caring and supportive.

“I think one of the hardest parts for me was who it was happening to. Kerr’s just a great guy … You can’t control who it happens to and I think the hardest part for me was realizing that it was happening to my coach and someone that I’ve always looked up to and always been close to,” Moreau said.

“It was just, ‘How is this going to affect the season? How is this going to affect him? I don’t want him to be sick. I don’t want him to go through this, and I don’t want him to have to deal with this or his family to have to deal with this,’ because I love Kerr and I love his family. It’s not anything you want anyone to go through. I think that was the hardest part, just realizing who it was happening to.”

GOLF PASSION FOLLOWS KERR TO MONTAGUE

Kerr is a Long Island native, having grown up just outside New York City. He and wife Amberley (Stevens) Kerr, who is an Orchard View alumna, met while studying education at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla. They married in 2009 and both began their teaching careers in Florida, where Kerr also coached track.

In 2012, the Kerrs headed north to be closer to relatives and start their own family. Phil Kerr arrived in Montague in January 2013 as a long-term substitute teacher. By the 2014-15 school year, he had been hired full-time to teach math in the middle school. In 2018, he moved to the high school, where he teaches algebra and geometry.

Phil and Amberley Kerr have two children: Phil II is 8 years old and a second-grader at Montague; Ella, 5, is in pre-kindergarten.

Phil and Amberley Kerr are shown in this selfie during Phil’s chemotherapy treatment in September 2021. (Photo by Amberley Kerr)

Phil Kerr picked up golf in middle school. He said his parents played golf socially, but he never got serious about it until friends introduced him to the game. He fell in love with it and it’s remained a passion.

Kerr’s high school did not have a golf team. He played baseball through the varsity level but said he would have loved the opportunity to compete in golf.

As an avid golfer now, who will choose the golf course over the couch any day, Kerr is a single-digit handicap. But he admits, like every other golfer, he’s striving to improve. He likes to tell those who know him best, he’s a much better coach than golfer.

“The truth is, golf is my life, and coaching is my biggest passion and hobby,” Kerr said. “I pour myself into it year-round. I love competing, and both golf and coaching allow me to continue to satisfy that itch.”

BUILDING A POWERHOUSE WITH CONFIDENCE

Many of the golfers on Montague’s 2021 state championship team met Kerr when he was their seventh-grade math teacher.

A number of them didn’t seem too interested in golf at the time, but eventually Kerr won them over with his personality.

“I had Kerr in seventh grade, and I remember him always being gone for golf and I remember, ‘I want to do this – he gets to skip school so much,’” senior Isabelle McKeown quipped.

Kerr began coaching golf at Montague High School with the boys team in the spring of 2014. He coached the Wildcats boys squad for six seasons. During that time, some girls joined the boys team because there was no girls squad.

It did not seem fair to Kerr that the girls had to play against the boys, so he initiated the process of creating a girls golf team and the program launched in 2016.

Since girls and boys high school golf in Michigan is played in different seasons, he was able to coach both teams for a while. He did that through 2019, but then decided to step down from the boys position as the two seasons were becoming too much of a strain on his young family.

Montague girls golf coach Phil Kerr walks back to his cart during the Greater Muskegon Athletic Association tournament Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at Stonegate Golf Club in Twin Lake, Mich. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

Kerr did not build the Montague girls golf program alone, and he’ll be the first person to say that. But he had the vision and, soon, he was setting big goals.

In 2019, Montague’s girls golf team qualified for the state finals for the first time. The Wildcats finished fourth overall with a two-day total of 762, behind champion Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian (727), runner-up Harbor Springs (732) and third-place Lansing Catholic (755).

Montague broke through in 2020, during the COVID year. The Wildcats won the Greater Muskegon Athletic Association tournament for the first time, they captured a regional title and they breezed to the Division 4 state title in the one-day format with a score of 343. Runner-up Lansing Catholic was way behind at 370.

Even if the Wildcats didn’t really believe they could win a state title last year – the first for a girls sport at Montague – Kerr did.

“I was like, ‘OK, I guess we’re going to state. OK, I guess we won,’” said sophomore Mackenzie Goudreau, recalling last year’s state title.

“Even when we doubt ourselves, he believes in us … even if it was imaginary confidence,” senior Claire Meacham said.

BATTLING CANCER AND WINNING AS A FAMILY

In mid-June, when Kerr and Montague’s golfers were working tirelessly on preparing for the upcoming season, the coach started experiencing nerve issues in his left arm.

His entire arm would go numb with the sensation of being poked by pins and needles, along with feeling swelling in his shoulder. That swelling proved to be a tumor in his chest wall, discovered by an orthopedic doctor.

It was late-July when Kerr received the cancer diagnosis and informed his team.

“It was really, really sad because he texted us and he wanted us all to meet at Old Channel (Trail),” senior Orianna Bylsma said. “All of us kind of knew something was up, but we didn’t want to believe it or kind of just jump to the conclusion that something bad had happened.”

It was not good news. But, in Kerr fashion, he wanted the season to be about his golfers and the pursuit of their goals and not about his cancer battle.

Kerr made the Wildcats vow to not allow his health challenges to distract from the goal of defending the state title. Kerr said it was rarely even acknowledged unless he and his golfers were talking about scheduling around his absences for treatment.

Megan Brown, who was a first-team all-stater on Montague’s 2020 state championship squad, joined the Wildcats as an assistant coach this season. She helped fill the void when Kerr was unable to attend events.

Montague assistant girls golf coach Megan Brown listens during a round-table discussion with Wildcats golfers outside the CatchMark building Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, in Whitehall, Mich. (Billy Mann | CatchMark)

Kerr said the state championship this season never happens without the contributions of Brown and junior varsity coach Tom Engelsman. Kerr thanked the school and administration for allowing him to continue coaching and for bringing Brown into the mix.

“It was good to be there with them and still be involved and just to help them and be there when he couldn’t be there,” Brown said. “It was almost more fulfilling than being on the team. It felt good for the team.”

The Wildcats will tell you, however, it still wasn’t the same without Kerr there.

Even when he was not there, however, he was paying attention. He tracked their scores and results on his phone, and sometimes players would receive text messages from him before they even left the course.

“It didn’t ever feel right when he wasn’t there. … I was just so sad the whole, entire time,” junior Natalie Kellogg said.

Montague repeated with GMAA, regional and state titles this fall – and Kerr was present for all of them.

The state championship came down to a fifth-player tie-breaker, as the Wildcats and Lansing Catholic both shot 675 over the two days at Michigan State University’s Forest Akers East.

Kerr knew it would be a tall task to win it all again. He considers his team a “family unit,” and that includes the players’ families, too. When he missed time, it threw off some of those family dynamics, but when he returned it was like they had never been apart.

Kerr’s long-range goal is to continue building the program from the ground up, welcoming the next generation and leading to more happy van rides.

Maybe one day, he can coach his own children to state championships, like Pat and Drew Collins did for Montague’s football team last year. That’s Kerr’s dream, although he’s focusing on the present.

“All the credit to the girls for dealing with the ups and downs in a mature manner well beyond their years and to the leaders on this team for emotionally carrying the load,” Kerr said.

“I don’t really feel comfortable sharing personal information, but highlighting how incredible these girls were throughout the season while dealing with the weight of expectations along with overcoming all of this adversity is a story worth telling.”

Lead writer for CatchMark SportsNet and Web Services leader for CatchMark Technologies.

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