GRCC, St Mary's Soak in D2 Success

June 13, 2019

By Matt Schoch
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING – Grand Rapids Catholic Central's Brenden Leonard said Thursday that teammate Joe Collins had ice water in his veins.

Funny, because while he said that, Leonard had ice and freezing cold water all over his body.

The ninth-hitting senior, who came into the night with three RBI on the season, was a catalyst for his team’s 3-2 victory against Trenton in the Division 2 Semifinal at Michigan State’s McLane Baseball Stadium.

Leonard reached base three times, playing a hand in all three runs, and Collins shut the door, striking out the side in the seventh to preserve the win.

“That kid (Collins) is made for those moments, ice in his veins, cool as a cucumber,” Leonard said, shortly after getting the Gatorade water bath from his teammates while doing post-game media interviews. “He’s built for those moments – level-headed and he’s always making the plays.”

Leonard could’ve been referring to himself after his RBI single in the second inning opened Catholic Central's scoring, and pinch-runners off his hard-earned walks provided the other runs.

“Everyone on this team is just a gamer,” Collins said. “When we need a big hit, a big play – this whole tournament, whoever has been up at the plate, they’ve made the play for us.

“That’s kind of defined our tournament, in my opinion. Just big plays when we need them from everyone.”

Ben Joppich earned the win, allowing two runs over six innings and improving to 9-1 in his senior season. 

Joppich gave way to Collins for the seventh, where the reliever shut the door, setting down one Trenton batter looking and the other two swinging.

“I had to settle myself down during warmups a little bit, but once I threw that first pitch, it was just kind of a normal game, just got settled in,” Collins said. “We needed three outs and then we’re going to the state championship. That got me settled down.”

Coach Tim MacKinnon and the Cougars (27-10) will play Orchard Lake St. Mary’s at 11:30 a.m. Saturday for what would be the program’s second Finals championship and first since 1985.

In the loss, Trenton junior right-hander Kyle Richey allowed two earned runs in six-plus innings, striking out six. 

Gabe Cavazos opened the scoring for Trenton (32-10) with an RBI single in the first inning.

Catholic Central took the lead on a pair of two-out RBI singles, first by Leonard in the second inning to tie, and then by junior Kyle Tepper in the fifth for the lead.

Trenton tied it on a schoolyard play in the bottom of the fifth. A runner stole second, drawing a throw from the Catholic Central catcher. After Trenton's Brenden Donovan broke for home, the throw to the plate was high, and the junior scored his second run of the night.

Catholic Central responded in the top of the seventh, as another throwing miscue led to the winning run.

Myles Beale singled pinch-runner Matt Moore to second after Leonard’s walk, and Trenton coach Todd Szalka went to sophomore Micah Ottenbreit to relieve Richey.

Ottenbreit struck out the first batter he faced, and then Luke Passinault’s grounder to second base looked like a potential inning-ending double-play ball.

However, an errant throw after the force out at second allowed Moore to score.

Collins, who also had a hit, took it from there.

“It’s something that Catholic Central is not really used to – we’re mostly a football school, but we’re a baseball school too,” Leonard said. 

“We can play a little ball. So I guess we’ll play a little ball Saturday.”

Click for the full box score.

Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 10, Muskegon Oakridge 0 (6 inn.)

Junior left-hander Logan Wood threw a complete-game, two-hit shutout to earn the win.

Wood struck out 10 batters and walked two, and closed his pitching season with a 10-0 record.

“Just one more,” Wood said. “We had a great game. The team hit the ball, I pitched well, a great game overall. I was feeling pretty good right from the start coming out of the bullpen.”

OLSM (33-9-2) stayed unbeaten over its last 28 games, a stretch that includes two ties.

Wood struck out five batters in the first two innings, and coach Matt Petry said his ace needed just 69 pitches in six innings.

“Logan did an excellent job,” Petry said. “For his standards, he struggled last time against St. Clair, but kept us in the game. But today, I think he almost took it personal about his last outing.

“He wanted to be great today, and he was.”

The Eaglets will be going for their fourth title Saturday and kept Oakridge at bay, as Eagles coach Brandon Barry was going for career win No. 500 and the school’s first Final appearance.

Senior pitcher Koleman Wall kept Oakridge (26-8) in the game early, stranding four runners in the first two innings, and allowing just one run through three.

But OLSM sophomore Alex Mooney broke the game open with a two-out, two-run double to the wall in the fourth inning to make it 4-0. He had three hits and three RBI.

“I knew we were going to hit the ball," Wood said. "We’ve got a great-hitting team top to bottom."

Cole Sibley’s two-run triple highlighted a four-run fifth inning, and OLSM scored twice in the sixth to end the game.

For the Eaglets, Sibley had three hits and three RBI, freshman Nolan Schubart had two hits and two RBI, and senior Ryan DuSang and freshman Jack Crighton also both had two hits.

Kolbe Stewart had a triple in the second inning, and Joe Terpenning added a single for Oakridge.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Logan Wood (11) and Steve Essig (15) join their teammates in celebrating a Semifinal win Thursday. (Middle) GRCC catcher Luke Passinault and pitcher Joe Collins go airborne after shutting down Trenton.

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.)