It has been a big year for high school graduate and golfer Sophie Stevens. She was named Junior Girls’ Player of the Year by the Golf Association of Michigan (GAM)—again—and is headed to the University of Florida in hopes of competing for a national championship.
But if you ask Sophie’s mom, Mania, which of her daughter’s accomplishments she treasures most, she will likely tell you about relationships and family ties—the reasons she and her husband Mark chose to homeschool in the first place.
“I wanted them all to be close,” Mania said of her five children.
It was the Stevenses’ oldest daughter who prompted the family to try homeschooling. Samantha, diagnosed with autism at an early age, doesn’t communicate verbally.
“She was going to a preschool for kids with autism,” Mania recalled. “And it always seemed like they set her goals too low, and that we could be doing more for her.”
Mania and her husband Mark both obtained training in how to administer various therapies to Samantha. After checking out private programs and failing to find one that addressed all their daughter’s needs, they determined to teach and care for their oldest themselves.
When more children came along, Mania and Mark decided to homeschool them as well.
“I thought it would create a bond,” said Mania.
It Started with a Piggyback Ride
The Stevens children have developed a special affinity, in part out of necessity as Samantha’s limitations had eliminated some activities, such as family trips. But the kids also found a common focus by being encouraged to sample one of their father’s favorite activities.
As Sophie recalled, her father set up a chipping range in the basement where the kids were encouraged to knock golf balls into a net. Each kid who got the requisite number of balls into the net earned a piggyback ride.
As the kids grew older, the basement golf range also served as part of their homeschool physical education requirements.
But it wasn’t until Sophie, the second-youngest, turned 9 that she competed on a golf course. She kept competing and, after a few years, made a pleasant discovery.
“I started playing pretty good,” she recalled.
Check the Leaderboard
In 2019, at age 13, Sophie scored a triumph that benefited the entire family. She qualified for the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals held at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, a week before the Masters Tournament. The entire Stevens clan loaded into their van and took their first vacation together to watch Sophie compete.
They were also featured on the Golf Channel. The video includes a shot of Sophie and Samantha exchanging high-fives and hugs—a common sight in the family’s home.
As Mania recounted to reporters: “At night I can hear Sophie tell Sam play-by-play what happened on the golf course. I really believe Sam senses that, feels that, and it really creates a special bond.”
Both sisters have developed their skills considerably since the trip to Georgia. Samantha now expresses herself creatively through painting and has produced inspiring images that Mania would love to see displayed in places such as medical offices.
Sophie, now 17, has compiled an impressive list of golf successes. Some of these include:
- Winning the 2022 Billy Horschel Junior Championship;
- Earning a medal at the 2022 GAM Women’s Championship;
- Finishing 2nd at the Randy Wise Junior Open; and
- Playing in the 121st U.S. Women’s Amateur at the age of 15.
Rated as one of the top 20 high school golfers in the nation’s 2023 graduating class, Sophie attracted recruiters from major universities. In her junior year she committed to the University of Florida, a program that seeks to add to its legacy as the winner of several national titles in women’s golf.
Sophie’s prospects as a college golfer nearly got derailed, however, because of an administrative glitch involving the organization that regulates high-level college sports—the NCAA.
The teen had taken several high school courses through HSLDA Online Academy, because the program’s flexibility helped accommodate her busy schedule as an athlete. For years the academy has worked closely with the NCAA to ensure its core courses meet the regulating agency’s standards.
One class that Sophie took through the academy had not been approved by the NCAA. The course prompts students to take a closer look at literature as a way to improve their writing skills, but employs an innovative approach, explained Lillie Schmidt, HSLDA Academy’s manager of academics and faculty.
“Foundations in Writing echoes a college-level composition course, so there’s not a traditional midterm and final,” she said. “There are lots of papers.” So the structure of the course and the fact that the high-school level course can also be taken by advanced 8th-graders may have confused the NCAA.
When Mania contacted Home School Legal Defense Association for help in resolving the problem, Senior Counsel Tj Schmidt (no relation to Lillie) immediately connected the academy team with our contact at the NCAA. Regulators sent an 80-page manual explaining how to resubmit the course for review.
Lillie re-submitted the course according to their process and earned approval within 24 hours.
“It was a great collaboration,” she said. “The NCAA was so helpful in directing us to what we needed to prove in order to show that Sophie—and any other homeschooled athletes who take our courses—are meeting requirements.”
Par for the Course
Sophie is now free to focus on preparing for her freshman year at college.
The qualities that earned her a spot on the University of Florida roster stem from the interactions she experienced as a homeschooler.
The teen noted that her competitive nature inspired friendly contests with her older brother, Grant, to see who could sink the longest chip shots in their basement. This ethic carried over to the golf course, where Sophie earned a reputation for constantly striving to improve her game.
“Sophie is incredibly focused and puts in the work to earn her success,” said Kyle Wolfe, director of junior golf for the GAM. “That’s the main reason she has been the top player in the state for the last few years, and it will be fun to watch her find more success next year as she transitions to the team component in college.”
In a web post introducing Sophie to Florida Gators fans, Women’s Golf Head Coach Emily Glaser highlights qualities that are exemplified by Sophie’s relationship with her sister Samantha. “She’s thoughtful and has a calm demeanor that will be an asset to our team,” the coach wrote.
Sophie's dad has also been a major influence on his daughter’s progress on the golf course. He’s filled multiple roles, serving as her caddy, her first coach, and her biggest fan.
“He’s been a huge supporter,” said Sophie. “He’s always been my extra set of eyes, keeping my swing in check.”
Of course, Sophie will no longer have her dad at her side when she competes in college. But he plans to do everything he can to make it to her tournaments and cheer her on.After all, they’re part of a homeschooling family that has built a special bond with each other.