Grand Blanc, Portage Central Rally Early in Semifinal Wins

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

June 17, 2021

EAST LANSING – Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice might have been making its third-straight trip to the MHSAA Semifinals and Grand Blanc its first ever, but Grand Blanc certainly wasn't nervous to start Thursday’s second Division 1 game at McLane Stadium. 

Excited and ready from the first pitch, Grand Blanc scored four runs in the first inning, which set the tone for a 9-1 win. 

“It can be a double-edge sword in certain situations,” Grand Blanc Kevin Hubbs said. “We kind of told our kids the pressure was kind of on them in a way because they’ve been here so many times. This is our first time. We just told the kids to come out and have fun regardless of what happens. If you’ve seen our kids in the dugout all season, win or lose, they are going to leave the ballpark having fun.”

Grand Blanc (32-11) jumped on Brother Rice in the top of the first inning, sending 10 hitters to the plate. 

The Bobcats built a 3-0 lead just five batters into the game, and rolled from there in advancing to meet Portage Central in Saturday’s 9 a.m. championship game. 

Following a leadoff double, Jonah Meleski scored after a bunt single by AJ Maxwell and subsequent throwing error. Following a walk to David Lally and a strikeout, Nathan Fidelino lined a two-run double down the right field line to make it 3-0 Grand Blanc. Brother Rice answered with a run in the bottom of the first inning on an RBI groundout by Will Shannon. 

Grand Blanc kept up the pressure in the second, loading the bases and taking a 6-1 lead on a two-run single with two outs by Dylan Bowen. The Bobcats added a run in the fourth inning when Tim Welsh walked with the bases loaded to make it 7-1. They then made it 9-1 in the fifth inning with a two-out rally after the first two men were retired; Fidelino hit an RBI single to left, and then pinch hitter Kyle Keener hit an RBI single to right. 

The damage done by Grand Blanc actually could have been worse. In addition to 12 hits, the Bobcats drew 10 walks and had three batters hit by Brother Rice pitching. 

Fidelino finished 3-for-4 with three RBI and a run scored, and Bowen added two hits and two RBI to lead the attack for Grand Blanc. 

“It’s surreal,” Fidelino said. “I’ve never felt anything like it. We had a whole city on our back today. It felt great. This is the best team we’ve ever had, and this is the furthest we’ve ever gone. Every game, we leave it all on the field.”

Lally, who has committed to Notre Dame, allowed four hits and struck out five in six innings of work on the mound for the Bobcats. 

Brother Rice finished its season 29-11.

Click for the full box score

Portage Central 5, Midland Dow 1

The last high school start for Portage Central senior ace Gavin Brasosky went just like his other starts this year, with him dominating and winning. 

Signed with Tennessee, Brasosky was in complete control Thursday, allowing one run, four singles and striking out 10 to lead Central to a 5-1 win over Midland Dow. 

Portage Central baseballBrasosky didn’t give up a hit until Dow’s Tom Biacagalupo singled with two out in the fifth inning. 

Central (35-4) advanced to the championship game for the first time since 2002, when it defeated Warren Mott to clinch the Division 1 title. 

“I was a little sore,” Brasosky said. “But as I kept going, I felt a little better. I was trying to win so we could play on Saturday, and that’s what we did.”

Brasosky’s performance was needed, as Central’s normally high-powered offense generated only five hits against Dow pitching. 

“I told him that he couldn’t have picked a better way to finish his career on the mound,” Central head coach Cory DeGroote said. “We really had to grind at the plate. They gave us a lot of different looks with a lot of different pitchers. We had to use our bunt game.”

Portage Central opened the scoring in the first on an RBI sacrifice fly by Zach MacDonald, then added two more in the second inning to take a 3-0 lead on a two-run single by Will Sachwitz. 

The Mustangs added another run in the fourth on an RBI sacrifice fly by Luke Leto. 

Dow did rally in the sixth inning and got on the board, cutting Central’s lead to 4-1 on an RBI single with two outs by Logan McCoy. But with runners on first and second, Brasosky induced a popout to end the inning. 

Central added insurance in the bottom of the sixth, taking a 5-1 lead on an RBI squeeze bunt by Cole Mason. Dow (27-15) also put runners on first and second with one out in the seventh inning, but Brasosky shut down that threat with back-to-back strikeouts to end the game. 

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Blanc’s Nathan Fidelino rounds second base during his team’s Semifinal win over Brother Rice on Thursday. (Middle) Portage Central’s Gavin Brasosky makes his move toward the plate.

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.)