Oxford High bowling teams resume play, honor late co-captain Justin Shilling

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Oxford — The thud of the ball as it lands on the lane, the rumble of 10 bowling pins scattering from a strike, the thunder of applause from parents.

Bowling was back Monday night in Oxford, where 32 students from Oxford High School's varsity and junior varsity bowling teams made their return to competition with their coaches and parents looking on at Collier Lanes.

Donning blue and gold Oxford bowling shirts, players lined up to eye the lead pin, many of them wearing a folded ribbon with the name Justin on it, for their fellow bowler, classmate and friend Justin Shilling. The 17-year old was among four teens killed inside Oxford High in the Nov. 30 attack by a student who is now an accused gunman.

Shilling served as co-captain of the varsity team. Jake Love, a senior on the varsity who wore a pin honoring Justin, said it was nice to get out Monday afternoon and play his sport among friends.

"With all the stuff going on, it was a good distraction," Love said. "We just got to be ourselves and that's important for us."

Love, 17, said he and Justin were very close friends and described him as a "light in a dark room," and a friend who would lift your mood if you were down.

"I felt like he (Justin) should be here," Love said. "I knew he wasn't and it was tough. My teammates were here to support me."

Love says his friends, family and the community have helped all the kids get through the last two weeks.

"We've seen everybody come together," Love said. "Usually everyone is on their own but in a tragedy like this everyone has come together. It's been a good thing for this community."

The event signaled the resumption of athletics for the first time since the Nov. 30 shooting.

Oxford bowler Jake Love, left, is congratulated by teammate Thomas Mace during a match against Southfield A&T on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Oxford.

Tony DeMare, Oxford High School athletic director, said the match was an opportunity for student-athletes and the Oxford community to be together through healthy and safe competition.

"Today kicks off a restart to our winter sports," DeMare said. "We are thrilled to see all of our student-athletes here. It's a great turnout, the enthusiasm, smiles on their faces. All the things that we want to see."

Oxford school officials said they consulted with mental health experts and law enforcement officials about the return of athletics and the recommendation was to give students and the community opportunities to interact with their peers, DeMare said.

"We just want them to re-engage with their peers and be around their teammates, compete for sure and most importantly just have fun," DeMare said.

Oxford parent Cheryl Verbeke came to watch her daughter bowl but wanted to talk about Justin Monday night. The families came together on Dec. 3 at Collier Lanes to see each other and be supported by the coaches and staff.

"He was a very nice young man and has a very nice family," Verbeke said. "We all loved Justin and we are all hurting for his family. He was kind and had a smile on his face."

Verbeke, whose daughter Haley is on the varsity team, said the teen was excited to do "some of the normal things" at the game but there were some nerves before coming.

Oxford High School bowling coach JR Lafnear, left, talks with his team after their match against Southfield A&T.

Bowling coach JR Lafnear said the game was an opportunity for the students to be themselves, relax and do what they love.

"It was an opportunity to put all the chaos behind them a little bit and just come out and bowl and be a kid," Lafnear said.

Other upcoming sporting events for Oxford Community Schools include wrestling, cheerleading, basketball, skiing, and swimming and diving, according to a district news release.

jchambers@detroitnews.com