Like Old Times But Also New, Beal City Closes Baseball Finals as Champion

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

June 17, 2023

EAST LANSING – The 2023 season felt like old times and the definition of turning back the clock for Brad Antcliff.

The Beal City baseball head coach from 2007-16, Antcliff returned before the start of this season, and it felt like he never left.

“It did,” Antcliff said. “But I talked to my players about what I needed to do different. It’s their team, and I’m following them.”

Also like old times, Antcliff followed his team to a state championship. 

Beal City captured its fifth with a 2-1 win over Plymouth Christian Academy in the Division 4 Final at Michigan State’s McLane Stadium, which also finished the MHSAA's 2022-23 school sports year.

Jake Gauthier slides into second for a stolen base just ahead of the tag by PCA’s Jordan Scott (6).It was the third title as coach for Antcliff, who also guided Beal City to crowns in 2009 and 2010.

“The expectations they met today, it’s hard,” Antcliff said. “It’s hard to get here, and it’s really hard to win it. They met every expectation that we put in front of them this year.”

In what was a well-pitched game between Beal City junior Cayden Smith and Plymouth Christian sophomore Tyler Scott, it was a couple of defensive miscues by PCA in the bottom of the sixth inning that were the difference. 

Following a flyout and a single by Beal City junior Jake Gauthier, freshman Blake Walcutt singled. A throwing error put runners on first and second base with one out, and then another throwing error plated Walcutt to give Beal City a 2-1 lead. 

The Aggies had the bases loaded with one out, but couldn’t tack on any insurance runs. That didn’t matter, as Beal City (31-8) finished off Plymouth Christian with a 1-2-3 seventh. 

Smith got the first out of the seventh inning on a strikeout, but had to be pulled after reaching the 105-pitch limit. Walcutt came in and got the final two outs to preserve the win. 

Smith struck out 11, walked none and allowed just three hits in 6 1/3 innings of work. 

Cayden Smith begins to unload a pitch during his winning performance.“My fastball was really there,” Smith said. “My curveball was there. My slider was kind of off. It was down and away and sometimes high. I couldn’t find it. But the curve ball was working, and the fastball was there too.”

Similar to Grand Rapids Christian in the Division 2 title game, Beal City avenged a loss in last year’s Final. 

“Since we lost that game, it was our new goal to come and get this one,” Smith said. 

After three scoreless innings, Plymouth Christian broke through in the top of the fourth, taking a 1-0 lead on a 2-out RBI single by Scott. 

Beal City answered in the bottom half of the fourth inning, tying the game at 1-1 when a run scored on a 2-out error that would have ended the inning. 

The Aggies had a golden opportunity in the fifth inning when they loaded the bases with two outs, but a groundout ended the threat. 

Scott allowed just four hits, struck out four and walked one in six innings of work for Plymouth Christian (34-8). 

While disappointed with the result, Eagles head coach Joe Bottorff is excited for the future of his program despite graduating eight seniors.

“I think everyone knows now that we belong here,” Bottorff said. “We had a JV team loaded with freshman travel players, so we have some guys coming through that are going to be really good. We have a pipeline built where we are going to reload rather than rebuild.”

Click for the box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Beal City’s players raise their championship trophy Saturday at McLane Stadium. (Middle) Jake Gauthier slides into second for a stolen base just ahead of the tag by PCA’s Jordan Scott (6).  (Below) Cayden Smith begins to unload a pitch during his winning performance. (Photos by John Castine/Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)