Performance: Summerfield's Derek Clark

June 20, 2019

Derek Clark
Petersburg Summerfield junior – Baseball

The Bulldogs closed one of the most dominating runs in MHSAA Baseball Tournament history with their first championship Saturday, and Clark turned in a performance to match. The pitcher/centerfielder threw a four-hit shutout in the 9-0 Division 4 Final win over Saginaw Nouvel, capping a run of 44 straight scoreless innings pitched to close his junior season as he earned the MHSAA “Performance of the Week.”

Clark’s pitching statistics this spring were jaw-dropping. He finished 13-0 with a 0.20 ERA – good for seventh lowest in MHSAA history. He had 116 strikeouts in 70 innings pitched, with 11 strikeouts in the championship game including for the season’s final out. He was 4-for-7 from the plate over the Semifinal and championship games to push his average to .500 for this spring, and he also finished with 48 runs scored and 52 stolen bases (tied for 19th most) on 54 attempts over 32 games. Summerfield defeated Gaylord St. Mary 5-0 in the Semifinal on the way to meeting Nouvel on Saturday, and finished with a combined scoring margin of 89-2 over eight postseason games. The championship was the school’s first at the Finals level in any boys sport. The Bulldogs also won the Tri-County Conference and finished 28-4 overall, capping a complete program turnaround – more on that below.

A three-sport athlete as a junior, Clark doesn’t plan to play football as a senior but will return as the point guard for a basketball team that won the league this past winter for the first time since 2011-12. He’s also a 3.6 student, part of National Honor Society and student council, and is leaning toward studying business or sports marketing when high school is done. He should have some interesting options to continue on the diamond as well – the left-hander made the Division 4 all-state first team this spring as a pitcher after earning the same as an outfielder in 2018.

Coach Travis Pant said: “He’s an ultra competitor. He hates to lose, and it shows in the way he plays the game. Derek’s energy and leadership fueled this historic weekend that we had as a program. He’s a humble leader who brings an enthusiasm to the field every single day that is unmatched. What people saw this weekend in the Finals is what I have watched for the past three seasons. He plays the game the right way and is very fun to watch. … He has been the face of the rebuild we had at Summerfield. When he was an eighth grader, we went 6-28. In his freshman year he quickly became the ace and a leader in the dugout. We have won at least 21 games in every year since. Derek has pitched us to two District championships, two Regional championships and a state championship. He wants the ball in big games and the team fuels off his confidence. Derek’s junior season was nothing short of amazing. He broke the county record for ERA with a 0.20 and was within three of the county stolen base record with 52. To do what he does on the mound and at the plate for us at such a consistent rate is amazing. Derek never had a bad day on the mound. No matter what the situation, he showed up with his best stuff.”

Performance Point: “The community's been really great about it. I can't go anywhere without having somebody say congratulations. I've had people I've never seen in my life say ‘Congrats,’” Clark said. “It's really nice to have that back-up, so to say, with our community. … With the weekend, it was just so good. All of our hard work, it finally paid off, finally got (us) to our number one goal. It's really nice to accomplish something this big. … The last out, to strike him out for the game, I was telling my catcher, ‘If we get to two outs, we've got to strike him out.’ I think that was probably the best moment. I just felt like it was more ecstatic, had us all pumped up. Because we had the confidence, I don't think it was shocking, so to say. We were really confident in ourselves and in our play because we were playing really well at the time. I think it was just more of a relief.”

Talking turnaround: “I think it’s just having guys that can play. The junior class this year was really big. We started five freshmen my freshman year. So just having that, and having guys come out. Also just having confidence in each other and trusting in each other, because team chemistry is huge. If you don’t have that, talent doesn’t really mean anything. … We’ve always been a baseball group. There’s been football and basketball, but we’ve been more of a baseball grade. I think we’ve been all right coming up, and we’ve just hit a stride the last couple of years and (we’re) just getting better.”

Taking the lead: “I just try to be a leader of everything, every sport I play. When it comes to basketball, I'm the point guard so you've gotta communicate, you've gotta use your words, you can't be quiet. You're the general of the floor – you've got to know what to do, what's going on at all times. That's kinda how I am with baseball. I just try to keep everybody engaged and try to get everybody looks and help everybody as much as I can.”

Title time: “It's just great to finally get it done. Our baseball program, Coach (Darrell) Polter built it up (before retiring in 2014 after nearly 40 seasons). He has 17 league titles at Summerfield, and just to finally get that state title meant a lot to us. Nobody's really ever been there to do that, in any sport, so (the community) made a really big deal. We came home after we won, and there was a big parade in town and it was just really surreal and awesome to be a part of.”

Never stop competing: “I think we're all just so competitive. We'll be in math class, doing something that's competitive, and if you lose it's hectic. Nobody wants to lose. I think that's got something to do with (our success). When we grew up, we didn't want to lose ever. That's how we've been since we were little. Some kids take it even into school, like ‘Ha ha, I have better grades than you.’ It gets wild. I’m not bad (academically), but our shortstop Brendan Dafoe has a 4-point, and Brayden Jewell has a 3.8 or 3.9 or something like that. We’re all in advanced class, so we get after each other in there.”

- Geoff Kimmerly, Second Half editor

Past 2018-19 honorees

June 13: Audrey Whiteside, East Grand Rapids lacrosse - Read
June 6:
Kari Miller, Ann Arbor Pioneer tennis - Read
May 23:
Keshaun Harris, Lansing Waverly track & field - Read
May 16: Gabbie Sherman, Millington softball - Read
May 9:
Nathan Taylor, Muskegon Mona Shores golf - Read
May 2:
Ally Gaunt, New Baltimore Anchor Bay soccer - Read
April 25:
Kali Heivilin, Three Rivers softball - Read
March 28:
Rickea Jackson, Detroit Edison basketball - Read
March 21:
Noah Wiswary, Hudsonville Unity Christian basketball - Read
March 14:
Cam Peel, Spring Lake swimming - Read
March 7:
Jordan Hamdan, Hudson wrestling - Read
February 28:
Kevon Davenport, Detroit Catholic Central wrestling - Read
February 21:
Reagan Olli, Gaylord skiing - Read 
February 14:
Jake Stevenson, Traverse City Bay Reps hockey - Read
February 7: Molly Davis, Midland Dow basketball - Read
January 31:
Chris DeRocher, Alpena basketball - Read
January 24:
Imari Blond, Flint Kearsley bowling - Read
January 17: William Dunn, Quincy basketball - Read
November 29:
Dequan Finn, Detroit Martin Luther King football - Read
November 22: Paige Briggs, Lake Orion volleyball - Read
November 15:
Hunter Nowak, Morrice football - Read
November 8:
Jon Dougherty, Detroit Country Day soccer - Read
November 1:
Jordan Stump, Camden-Frontier volleyball - Read
October 25:
Danielle Staskowski, Pontiac Notre Dame Prep golf - Read
October 18:
Adam Bruce, Gladstone cross country - Read
October 11: Ericka VanderLende, Rockford cross country - Read
October 4:
Kobe Clark, Schoolcraft football - Read
September 27: Jonathan Kliewer, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern soccer - Read
September 20: Kiera Lasky, Bronson volleyball - Read
September 13: Judy Rector, Hanover-Horton cross country - Read

PHOTOS: (Top) Petersburg Summerfield's Derek Clark unloads a pitch during Saturday's Division 4 championship game win at McLane Stadium. (Middle) Clark heads back to his dugout after sliding in head-first to score in Friday's Semifinal.

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.)