After 2021 Semifinal Trip, Huron Building Toward Another Big Finish

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

May 10, 2022

NEW BOSTON – Phil Yancey learned an important lesson while coaching baseball to teenagers in the Dominican Republic – a lesson that he uses today with his players at New Boston Huron.

“The kids there play hard, from the warm-ups right through the last play of a game,” he said. “They give 100 percent. For many of them, it’s there only way out of poverty. Baseball is their ticket off the island.”

Yancey stresses to his players now to play hard every single minute they are on the field.

“Field that ground ball like it’s your last ground ball,” he tells them. “Go up to the plate like it’s your last at-bat.”

Yancey coached five seasons in the Dominican before becoming the varsity baseball coach at Huron High School in southern Wayne County seven years ago. He’s developed a rock-solid program at Huron, one that is currently ranked among top teams in the state and looks to be built for a deep tournament run. 

Huron went 26-8 in 2021, reaching the state rankings for the first time in school history. The Chiefs won Division 2 District and Regional titles and made the Semifinals before bowing out to eventual champion Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. That club had 10 seniors, but Yancey saw potential for big things this season.

“It was nice coming into the season with guys to build around, but we found some really talented players this year too,” he said. “We are playing pretty well right now.”

The Chiefs are off to a 17-2 start. The losses came to Grosse Ile in an early-season game and to Livonia Stevenson in an 8-7 slugfest. The Chiefs have a key matchup with Riverview this week, and a win would go a long way toward the team repeating as Huron League champion. 

The team is built with a solid core of seniors including shortstop-pitcher Cole Grunwald and centerfielder Matt Williams, plus juniors like Rory Callahan, Michigan State University commit-Gavin Moczydlowski and sophomore Micah Smith – who is quickly gaining the interest of multiple colleges.

Moczydlowski is the ace of the pitching staff and one of the top hitters on the team. He committed to MSU in the fall after a great season last year. 

“He throws 90-92,” Yancey said. “He’s a really good pitcher, doesn’t walk many, and hitters have a tough time with him.”

New Boston Huron baseballMoczydlowski would have been on the varsity as a freshman, but the season was canceled because of COVID-19. As a sophomore he broke a bone in his elbow during basketball season, and no one knew it until after he pitched – and won – the baseball season opener. He ended up playing first base all season due to the arm injury. This year he’s in the rotation, and Yancey considers him the ace.

“It like an addition to the team because he didn’t pitch last year,” Yancey said. “We like the combination of him starting and Micah Smith closing.”

Smith has been a pleasant surprise. He’s another hard-throwing righthander. Yancey wasn’t even counting on him when the season started, but he’s throwing in the 90s and has more than proven himself. Oakland University and the University of Pittsburgh have been in regular contact with Yancey about the sophomore, who has a 1.80 ERA with 34 strikeouts among the 84 batters he’s faced.

“He’s a diamond in the rough,” Yancey said.

Grunwald is 4-0 with an ERA under 1.00. Grunwald pitched a perfect game in the Regional Final last season and hit for the cycle in the Quarterfinal. He’s hitting almost .400 this season. 

Junior Lucas Coll is another solid piece of the rotation.

“We definitely have a better, deeper pitching staff than last year,” Yancey said. “It’s hard to win deep in the tournament with one guy or two. We have five. We are setting up nicely. It’s like we added a whole new pitching staff to our team since last year. 

“It’s a good problem to have.”

Catcher Connor Grant is hitting .468 with three doubles in his first season behind the plate. Ashton Warren is hitting over .500 in limited action, and Callahan has raised his average more than 100 points over last year and is batting .377.

Yancey says Williams might be the fastest guy in centerfield in the state. 

“When other teams look back at why we beat them, inevitably the answer is Matt Williams,” Yancey said. “He can dominate games.”

Yancey has coached on and off for about 20 years, including time as an assistant softball coach at Huron when his daughter was an all-state player. His time in the Dominican Republic was an eye-opener.

“The kids play hard, but they play loose,” he said. “They know they are out there to have fun. That’s one thing I tell my kids at Huron – play to have fun – but never take a play off. We’ve had very good results that way.”

New Boston Huron will start the MHSAA Tournament run with Carleton Airport. After that, Yancey has the path to Michigan State and the Finals well-mapped out. Now, the Chiefs must go out and perform.

“We’ve built a program,” he said. “It’s not a varsity team, junior varsity team and freshman team. It’s a program. We all wear the same uniforms. Every guy, from the nine guys on the field to the guys on the bench or guys on the JV team … they are all competing for spots. Everyone knows their number could be called at any time.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Huron’s Gavin Moczydlowski drives a pitch while his teammates look on during a game at Chelsea. (Middle) The Chiefs’ Cole Grunwald pulls into third base during a game against Trenton. (Photos by Tom Hawley/Monroe News.)

Kingsley Standouts Big Hits on Diamond, as Friends to 4th-Hour Classmates

By Tom Spencer
Special for

April 19, 2024

When Eli Graves or Gavyn Merchant takes a swing this spring for Kingsley, a special group of friends are not worried how they’ll connect with the ball.

Northern Lower PeninsulaThat group of friends and classmates — students in Joel Guy’s fourth-hour special education class — feel like the two senior standout athletes already hit a home run at school that day. It might even feel like a grand slam from Graves or perhaps a hole-in-one for Merchant.

And the Kingsley baseball and golf coaches feel similarly – and sentiment that may extend through the entire Kingsley community.

Merchant and Graves are playing their final baseball seasons with Stags. Merchant is dual-sporting, adding golf to his incredible athletic career.

Together, they led the Stags to Division 6 football championship in the fall despite battling through extensive injuries. Graves, the star running back, and Merchant, the outstanding quarterback, then fought through long, hard rehabilitations to get back and lead the Stags on the hardcourt and wrestling mats this winter.  

But before stepping up to the plate or the tee to compete for Kingsley on any given day this spring, the pair spend time in Guy’s class and share lunch with the Kingsley cognitively impaired (CI) students.

“You can’t say enough good things about these young men,” said Guy, who also is in his fourth year as the Kingsley golf coach. “I get teary-eyed talking about it – they just kind of took a hold of some of my students making contact at lunch and in the hallway.”

That contact began midway the football season. Graves and Merchant were joined by fellow golfer Ty Morgan and football teammate Skyler Workman.

Merchant (6) hands the ball off to Graves during the Division 6 championship win at Ford Field. A few more senior athletes have been a part of the adoption of Guy’s students intermittently as well. But Guy’s students can count on seeing Graves, Merchant, Morgan and Workman in the classroom each and every day and then at lunch. The time was made possible, Guy notes, because the athletes are ahead in their own academic pursuits or participants in the school’s Teacher Academy program.

How those seniors are contributing is rare for accomplished athletes in a high school setting, Guy is happy to point out.

“Gavin and Eli are state champions in football,” said Guy. “They are the stars of their winter sports basketball and wrestling, and you you think that being seniors with those kinds of credentials at lunch they would sit in a table with all their buddies and talk about their accomplishments.

“They sit with my special education students,” Guy continued. “They make my students feel like they’re the ‘in’ crowd, and I am so proud of them.”

Bruce Graves, father of Eli and coach of the Stags’ baseball team, recalls learning from Guy what that group of seniors was doing with their fourth hour. He wasn’t really surprised to hear from someone else what his senior leaders were doing.

“They wouldn’t tell anybody they were doing it,” the 22-year veteran coach said. “They don’t do it for a pat on the back – they just do it because they like being good guys.”

There are various reports of exactly how the athletes started getting involved with the special education students. But everyone in the school located 15 miles south of Traverse City seems happy they did.

Eli Graves, one of the Stags’ five pitchers, roams center field when he’s not on the mound. He is 1-0 as the Stags are off to a 9-0 start following a conference sweep of Kalkaska, 3-0, 15-0, on Thursday. The right-hander is slated to pitch this weekend and has hopes of the Stags finishing the year with a conference baseball title and a deep postseason run.

Graves and Merchant have raised money all year to get birthday and Christmas gifts for their classmates in Guy’s room. They’ve become particularly close to a couple of his students.

“They don’t really see us as helpers or anything like that — they see us more as friends,” said Graves, now playing his third year on the varsity baseball squad.  “We go into the special ed room, and basically just help the students with whatever work they are doing.”

Merchant putts during Thursday’s golf opener.After recovering from football injuries, Graves averaged more than 15 points per game this basketball season and earned all-conference. Merchant also recovered from postseason surgeries and got back on the mat to place fourth at 132 pounds in Division 3 and became an all-state wrestler for the fourth time.  

The pair’s in-season football injuries were not known to many. They wanted to compete for the state title and tend to the injuries later. Graves rushed for almost 2,000 yards, tying and breaking some of his brother Owen’s school records along the way. He also had 20 tackles, two interceptions and four touchdowns on defense during the 2023 campaign.

Graves sprained a shoulder joint during the Semifinal win over Reed City but a week later carried the ball 33 times and ran for 210 yards in the title game. He had four touchdowns that day in the Stags' 38-24 victory over Almont.

Merchant has had various injuries over the course of his career, undergoing wrist surgery as a sophomore for a carpal tunnel injury and having floating cartilage taken out of a knee following his junior wrestling season.

But what he endured on the way to Ford Field was the topper as he endured two torn ligaments in his knee, a fractured leg, a torn meniscus — and, later on — a pair of broken ribs sustained late in the championship game.

“When you’re in the game, it’s all about adrenaline,” said Merchant, who is facing another surgery in May but shot a 95 to lead Kingsley in its first tournament of the season Thursday at the Frostbite Open in Manton. “You don’t even think about the injury until you get off the field, and that’s when you get ice bags and fight it off.”

They have been close friends since elementary school and credit the Kingsley coaching, teaching and counseling staffs with preparing them for life after graduation.

Graves and Merchant call football their favorite sport. Graves hopes to also play football at the college level, and Merchant expects to continue on the wrestling mat.

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Eli Graves, left, and Gavyn Merchant are among standouts for Kingsley’s baseball team again this spring. (Middle) Merchant (6) hands the ball off to Graves during the Division 6 championship win at Ford Field. (Below) Merchant putts during Thursday’s golf opener. (Baseball photos by Karen Middleton.)