Veteran St Francis Earns Top Billing

May 19, 2017

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

TRAVERSE CITY – Tom Passinault does not like to put unnecessary pressure on his Traverse City St. Francis baseball team.

So, when his team took over the No. 1 ranking in the Division 3 baseball coaches poll, he made it more of a lighthearted moment.

“We were joking when we got ranked No. 1,” Passinault said. “We said, ‘That honor is usually reserved for the football team.’”

But now, two weeks away from the start of the MHSAA Tournament, the 27-2 Gladiators are in that envious position.

And it’s no accident.

St. Francis returned its entire starting lineup from last season’s 25-11 squad. Plus, the Gladiators added junior pitcher/first baseman Joey Muzljakovich, who tore a knee ligament in football and missed last season; and second baseman Gabe Callery, who ran track last spring.

“We expected to be a good team,” junior catcher Cooper Peterson said. “We’re doing really well, even better than I thought.”

The only setbacks have been to Division 1 No. 15 Brownstown Woodhaven and Muskegon Mona Shores. The 27 wins are a school record.

Passinault is in his fourth season as head coach – and the Gladiators are closing in on a fourth consecutive Lake Michigan Conference title.

The keys to success? Pitching and defense.

“In basketball, you talk about how you can always play good defense because you’re not always going to shoot well,” Passinault said. “We (apply) that to baseball. You can always pitch and play defense because your hitting is going to be sporadic at times, although we’ve been pretty successful one through nine hitting the ball.”

St. Francis pitchers sport a 1.45 earned run average. Seven pitchers have earned wins. Muzljakovich is the ace. He’s 7-0 with a 0.58 ERA and has struck out 67 hitters in 36 innings. Junior lefthander Casey Peterson is 5-0 and has yet to allow an earned run. He separated a shoulder in the Mona Shores game, missed about three weeks, but has returned to action. Peterson has 42 strikeouts in 24 innings. Sophomore Keaton Peck is 4-1 with a 2.05 ERA, while senior Connor Sweet is 3-1 with a 1.48 ERA.

“First of all, there’s great depth,” pitching coach Mike Muzljakovich said. “We have four guys that most years we would gladly call our No. 1.”

Mike Muzljakovich believes Joey Muzljakovich and Casey Peterson will pitch in college. In addition to Joey Muzljakovich’s injury last season, Peterson missed time with elbow issues. Sweet stepped up and won 10 games.

Now, everyone is healthy. And with the MHSAA implementing pitch count limits, that depth is a blessing.

“When the pitching limitations came out, we felt like it would be to our advantage because we have more depth than most teams,” Mike Muzljakovich said. “That won’t always be true, but we’re going to ride it for the next three or four years.”

When St. Francis has needed an extra arm, particularly for weekend tournaments, Passinault has called up Josh Bradfield from the JV. He’s 4-0 with a 1.75 ERA.

“Normally, he would be solidly in our rotation,” Mike Muzljakovich said.

What impresses Passinault the most is the command.

“Our strikeout (207) to walk (56) ratio is very impressive,” he said. “We walk (an opposing batter) about every 3.2 innings.”

That’s not lost on the players in the field.

“We have phenomenal pitching,” sophomore centerfielder Danny Passinault said. “Our pitchers throw strikes, and our defense makes plays.”

The Gladiators are especially strong up the middle with Peterson behind the plate, Peck at shortstop, Callery at second and Passinault in center.

“Watching (Passinault) track a baseball is the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Peterson said.

Tom Passinault notes that he has a “really good defensive team,” and he’s quick to praise his other regulars, including Sweet at third, Muzljakovich at first, senior Peter McAndrews in left and sophomore Artie Dutmers in right

“As hard as our pitchers throw, (Dutmers) gets a lot of action,” Passinault said.

Assistant coach Brad Peterson works with the infielders.

The Gladiators are also hitting .338 as a team. The leaders include Muzljakovich (.414), Sweet (.405), Peck (.395), McAndrews (.392) and Cooper Peterson, junior Matt Westman and sophomore Nathan Schmuckal (all at .333). Muzljakovich leads the team with 25 RBI.

“We’re getting clutch hits at the right time and scoring runs when we need to,” Passinault said.

A year ago, the Gladiators were surprised in the District by Lake City.

“Losing to Lake City did not sit well with us,” Cooper Peterson said. “It’s been a major motivator this whole year.”

“We had one of those games you want to avoid,” Passinault added. “In the tournament, it’s one (loss) and done.”

Passinault called the 2016 season a “unique year” because he did not have a senior.

“It made last year tough leadership-wise,” he said. “But the good thing is we brought a bunch of players back that had experience.”

Callery, who had played baseball previously, decided to come back after running track. He’s one of four seniors on this year’s roster.

“I missed it,” he said. “It’s fun being around these guys. Plus, I knew we had a chance to be really good.”

Passinault, who coached Grand Rapids Catholic Central to the Division 4 Football Final in 2005 and then turned around the Traverse City Central football program before stepping down after the 2014 campaign, said the Gladiators have “high goals” as the postseason nears. But he knows there will be difficult challenges ahead.

“One of the things we know we’ll have to do is beat a very good pitcher,” he said. “We challenge the kids – what can you do when we face that good pitcher? Not everybody is going to drive the ball in the gap. Is it stealing bases? Is it making a play? We’re really trying to get the kids to understand what they can do to make us better.”

It’s already been a good year for the Passinaults. Tom and Teresa’s oldest son, Noah, a senior at St. Francis, received a scholarship and will attend Notre Dame, Tom’s alma mater. Noah, who’s involved in band and choir, is thinking of trying out for the marching band, his father said.

“I told my wife, ‘I knew I’d have a son playing in that football stadium,’” Tom Passinault said. “I thought he might be a running back, but he’s a clarinet. It’s awesome. He’s going (to Notre Dame) for the right reasons. He likes math and philosophy and he made it into their honors college, which is quite a feat.”

As a sophomore, Danny Passinault has been a primetime varsity player in football, basketball and baseball. He was the quarterback on the 11-1 football team that lost a heartbreaker to eventual champion Pewamo-Westphalia in the Regional Final.

The Passinaults’ daughter, Gwyneth, a seventh-grader, just set the school record in the 70-meter dash.

“It’s been quite a spring,” Passinault said.

And it looks like it could get even better. The Gladiators will host the baseball District.

“We stress to the kids, that no matter what happens, it’s been a good year,” Passinault said. “We don’t want to put too much pressure on the end result. But we do have high goals. We want to go as far as we can.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. 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) Traverse City St. Francis senior Conner Sweet prepares to deliver a pitch during a game this season. (Middle) Senior Gabe Callery stretches his lead off first base. (Below) Peter McAndrews (3) holds an Elk Rapids runner close to first base. (Photos by Toni Sweet.)

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.)