Some Marauders journey further than others to get to their home away from home on Millersville’s campus. Take, for example, Jake Speers, who hails from Portstewart, Northern Ireland, a small coastal town with seaside views, a tight-knit community, lots of places to grab a pint and a historic golf club.
Speers didn’t start playing golf until his early teens. “I didn’t pick up a club until I was 13 years old and I fell in love with it. From that moment on, all I’ve ever wanted to do was come to the States and play golf.” He went on to make some impressive wins as a young golfer, including winning the Ulster Winter Series, placing second at the Portstewart Scratch Cup and club championship, and he was the youngest golfer to represent both Senior Cup and Junior Cup teams at Portstewart Golf Club.
Then, very suddenly in March 2019, Jake’s mother, Evelyn, passed away. “I stopped playing for a year,” he says. “On top of the loss of my mother, it brought a lot of financial difficulty on me wanting to study in the United States. It just wasn’t looking very likely, so I had said to my dad, ‘If it’s going to happen it will, but I’ll not force it. All I can do is hope.’”
By chance, Speers met Jim Haus, general manager of Bent Creek Country Club in Lititz, Pennsylvania when he was on a golf trip around Ireland. “I wasn’t even meant to be working that day and when Jim walked into the shop, I said instantly I would caddie for him,” says Speers. “This group was different from so many others I had caddied for. On the second hole, they asked what my dream was, so I explained my dream of playing collegiate golf in the U.S.” Haus took an interest in Speers who told him about Millersville. “Mr. Haus said to me, ‘Look, there’s a university 30 minutes away from where I live. You’re more than welcome to come out and stay with me and come and visit and see if you like it,’” explains Speers.
That’s just what he did. During his visit, Speers met with men’s golf coach Scott Vandegrift, who he and the team affectionately call Pro. After watching him, Vandegrift called him a week later to say he wanted Speers on the team. “I’ll never forget that phone call,” says Speers excitedly, a smile on his face. “He said, ‘I would love to offer you a spot on the team for the next four years,’ and it was amazing. It was like a dream come true, right? I couldn’t believe it was real.”
Back in Ireland, Speers and his family had to come up with the funds to get here and focus on getting his swing back, after being out of practice for the better part of year. So, he went to the Portstewart Golf Club, his home club where he says everyone, “. . . is like a second family to me. Every member knows every member. Everybody knows everybody there. It’s brilliant and it’s a great atmosphere.” Just like a family, they took care of Speers. “That’s when the whole fundraising things kicked off,” explains Speers. The club hosted several events to help Speers raise money to begin his collegiate athletic career in the United States.
But not just the club rallied behind Speers. So did the town, and even his high school. “I can’t thank all the people at home enough. They’ve done so much for me. Because Portstewart’s such a small town, it’s not only the golf club that gets behind you, it’s almost the whole town.”
Even with the town rallying behind him, Speers was still short on his financial goal. The Portstewart Golf Club came together to host an 18-hole tournament to raise funds on his behalf. “Maybe 200 people played and they all gave a donation at the start,” he shares. At the end of the tournament, they raised over £2000 – close to $3,000 U.S. dollars. “It got us over the line to get my first year paid,” says Jake with a smile. “Neil Morrison, captain of Portstewart Golf Club, has been the big kick in getting me here and the golf club just supported me the whole way.”
There were many times when Speers says he wasn’t sure it would work out. “So many times, I thought that we might not get this money. Neil would say, ‘Look, just give it some time. It’ll happen.’ And then the golf club started the fundraisers and said, ‘If this is your dream and you really want to do this, then you know we’re gonna support you.’ It’s been a crazy journey. To even be sitting here and saying to them that I’m here in the United States is amazing.”
Now, Speers has completed his first year at Millersville University as a psychology major and, of course, as a member of the men’s golf team that’s fresh off a PSAC Championship win, thanks in part to Speers pushing through a game-day injury. “There are three seniors on the team, and this was their last PSAC, and I didn’t wanna let them down,” he says, though he couldn’t even pick up a club at the time. “Bob, our team captain, said, ‘Look, it’s fine. We’d rather you go back tonight, get the treatment and then come back tomorrow if you can play.’” He did just that. “So, I went back the next day, I played, and I pushed out a good score for the team, and we ended up winning. I wanted to do it for them because they are some of my best friends and are all like bigger brothers to me. I also wanted to do it for Pro. He has always had my back and done so much to get me here, I’m just glad it all worked out because we had worked so hard all semester for it.”
According to Speers, he’s loved his experience and made lots of connections while on campus. He rooms with teammate Timothy Peters, whom he says is “Like the brother I never had – he’s my best friend,” and gave props to Millersville’s International Programs and Services Office that made his transition as smooth as possible. “The documentation took a lot of time, but they made it completely smooth, anything I needed to get done,” he says. “The people have been so nice, so helpful, everyone just chats away.”
The accent, he says, never gets past them, but it doesn’t bother Speers. “It is funny when you start talking and people are like, ‘You’re not from here!’. But I love telling people about where I’m from.”
While Speers has adjusted well to his new home away from home, there are a few differences that took some getting used to. “The education systems here are much different to what it is at home, but it just took a couple of weeks to settle in and get comfortable,” he explains. “And the roads are different. There’s like six lanes and six traffic lights. It’s so different from home because we would have two lanes and we have no traffic lights, and we drive on the left side of the road.”
The pace of life, he’s noted, is also different. “At home, it’s very chilled out whereas here it’s hustle and bustle,” says Speers. He says he misses fresh seafood from home and being able to surf in his time off. “It’s literally a real-life movie. You grow up watching Christmas movies and places such as New York, and it’s really like that. It’s a different way of life, but it’s fun. It’s certainly a big change for a little kid like me from a small town.”
As Speers reflects on his journey to Millersville, he says he’s overwhelmed with the support he received from his community. “It means everything to me,” he explains. “I’ve said it so many times: it’s such a small town where everybody knows everybody. At church, all the little kids come up and say, ‘Jake, I wanna do what you’re doing and play golf and in America.’ People you see just when you’re out walking the dog, they will stop and chat and say, ‘Best of luck. If there’s anything we can do, let us know.’ There’s been several occasions where people have said, ‘The whole town wants you to do well and just live your dream.’ It’s just little things like that that mean the world.”
For so long, Speers wasn’t sure that he’d be able to get to Millersville. Now, he considers himself one lucky lad to be a Marauder. “I’m very, very grateful to be here because it was a dream, and now it’s a dream come true.”