Brother Rice Turns Small Friday Advantage Into Saturday Finals Repeat

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

June 11, 2022

GRAND RAPIDS – It was a smaller lead than the Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice boys golf team would’ve liked.

However, it was the perfect motivation to end the season the same way as last year.

The Warriors won their second-straight Lower Peninsula Division 2 Final on Saturday at The Meadows at Grand Valley State.

Brother Rice finished with a two-day total of 609, 17 strokes lower than runner-up Richland Gull Lake (626).

The Blue Devils rallied to edge third-place Flint Powers Catholic (628) and Grand Rapids Christian (630).

Gull Lake’s Bryce Wheeler won individual medalist honor with a stellar 138, which was four under par for the weekend.

Brother Rice led by only four strokes entering the final round, but pulled away throughout Saturday.

The Warriors were led by junior Lorenzo Pinili, who fired a 3-under-par 68 to finish the weekend at 144 and tie for second individually with Spring Lake senior Evan McDermott (71-73). 

“I think we had a tough day yesterday as a team,” Pinili said. “We thought we should’ve played a little better so we kind of took that and just put it as a goal to play better and not make the same mistake. I’m proud of how the team played today.”

Pinili was the only golfer in the field to shoot under par Saturday, and was 5-under-par through eight holes.

“I started off really hot,” he said. “And that just gave me so much room to work with. I got a little tired at one point, but then I got it back and finished strong.”

Brother Rice also received low scores from freshman Leandro Pinili (151), junior Marcus Lee (152) and seniors Kyle Gruley (162) and Matt Baer (163).

“It was close at the top, but the whole team just settled down and we talked about how tomorrow (Saturday) is a new day and we are going to play better,” Baer said. “We played like we knew how to play, and we really came together to get this win.”

The Warriors had won last year’s Final by 28 strokes, but associate head coach David Sass knew it was going to be more competitive this time.

“There were a lot of quality players in this field, and I think Division 2 golf is tough; it’s good golf,” Sass said. “It feels incredible to go back-to-back, and it’s hard to do.

“It was a battle the whole way, and it kind of turned into a test of who could get mentally focused the most. This course is extremely difficult, and big numbers are waiting for you on any hole. We bounced back after bad holes and played extremely well. I’m so proud of the way they performed.”

Wheeler, who didn’t place in the top 10 a year ago at the Final, shot a first-round 67 to grab a four-shot lead and then held off a group of competitors to win his first state title.

He closed with an even-par 71.

“Expectations were pretty high coming into this, and obviously I’ve had a pretty good year,” Wheeler said. “I think it’s all about preparation, and I had nearly two weeks of preparation for this.

Richland Gull Lake golf“I definitely felt like I had the potential to do this, and I just feel grateful to be able to do this. It’s awesome.”

Wheeler’s lead was shaved to one early in the round, but he made back-to-back birdies. He said he knew where he stood the entire way.

“I always look at the leaderboard, and I think it helps me because I feel like I do better under pressure,” Wheeler said. “I was nervous on the first hole because I never had to keep a lead before, but I just had to keep my head down and keep grinding.”

Wheeler carded four birdies and four bogies Saturday.

He finished his round getting up-and-down for par from the left rough on No. 16 and drained a six-foot putt.

“That was pretty cool, and I definitely wanted to make par on that last hole just to end the weekend,” Wheeler said. “It felt good for it to go in.”

Wheeler helped carry Gull Lake to its best Finals’ finish in school history, and his team accomplished the feat with an impressive final round.

The Blue Devils entered the day in sixth place, but moved up the leaderboard with stellar play and timely putts.

They fired a 312 on Saturday and also were led by freshman Hank Livingston, who had an 11 on the first hole but recovered brilliantly to shoot a 79 and 157 for the tournament.

Sophomore Ben Szabo (165) and freshman Chase Kosin (167) also contributed . 

“The kids never gave up, and they just kept going,” Gull Lake coach Thurman Walters said. “Everybody had rough patches, but we knew that if we play our best and make the best score you can then you give yourself a chance. I’m really proud of these guys, and it was definitely  a lot of fun.”

Walters also was thrilled with his No. 1 player’s effort.

“I’ve never seen anybody work like he does on his game,” he said. “You can’t have a kid with a better work ethic, and now we have to find him a school that will open their eyes and say, ‘Hey, this kid is pretty good.’”

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PHOTOS (Top) A Brother Rice golfer putts during Saturday’s second round at The Meadows. (Middle) Gull Lake’s Bryce Wheeler also putts Saturday on the way to winning the individual championship. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)

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.)