Luke's Medalist Run Keys Marquette's Team Championship

By Justin St. Ours
Special for Second Half

June 3, 2021

HARRIS — The individual winner of the MHSAA Upper Peninsula Division 1 Boys Golf Final wasn’t 100-percent sure what his running score was until he stepped up to the tee on hole 18.

Marquette senior Joe Luke, seeing Menominee’s Brady Badker — a Great Northern Conference rival —  watching on from the end of the 18th hole, caught up and realized he had victory in his grasp.

“Just before 18, I had no clue (about my score),” Luke said. “There was this phone app we were using to keep score, and I wasn’t on my phone (beforehand) because I figured I would just put it all in afterwards so I could keep focus on my game. Then, once I got to 18, one of my buddies in the group told me Brady (Badker) was plus-three. So, I was like, ‘Oh, boy.’ I didn’t really want to know that because I was plus-one at the time.

“I came in, and I saw him up on the hill watching me, which is normal. We always played together in the normal GNCs. Then, I ended up bogeying the last hole, and I knew I had to come out with a bogey. I was probably a little bit nervous, but I was also very excited. Maybe a little teary too because it’s my last meet for high school.”

It wasn’t an easy win for Luke on Thursday in Harris. Despite the top two golfers finishing ahead of third place by five strokes, Luke edged Badker by just one with a 2-over 74.

“I didn’t think I was going to come in and win this. I just wanted to shoot a good enough score for the team for us to win,” Luke added. “I felt pretty confident with the team aspect for winning the UPs. It was really nice helping the team out there. Just coming into it, I knew probably after the front nine that I was even, so I was like, ‘I actually have a really good shot at this. I just have to keep playing the way I am, and maybe shoot even on the back too. Maybe I got this thing in the bag.’ It was really exciting. I definitely wasn’t expecting it, and I really enjoyed the round and the course and the people I was playing with.”

The rest of Luke’s team followed his example, as Marquette also earned the team championship by a five-stroke margin (325) over Houghton (330). The title was Marquette's first since 2013 and followed a runner-up finish to Houghton in 2019. The 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19.

Menominee golf“It was fun to watch all five boys play well,” Marquette assistant coach Rick Rhoades said. “They all played solid. This course was playing pretty tough. This is one of the tougher courses in the U.P. It was just great watching them come together as a team. They’ve been playing good all year, so it was nice to cap things off with a win.”

Despite some missed strokes, Houghton coach Corey Markham was happy with his team’s performance.

“I thought it was a real solid performance for our team,” he said. “When you’re five strokes behind the first place, you look back and see a few places where you wish you could have shaved a stroke here or there, but I thought we had a great day on a great course.”

Luke and Badker both finished the front nine at par with two bogeys and two birdies for Luke and one apiece for Badker.

“Some of the harder holes (went better for me) as well,” Luke said. “It’s weird. It’s always the hard holes that I seem to birdie in. … Number four connected pretty good. Off of the tee shot, it was nice right in the middle, and I was able to pull a nice 8-iron up into the wind. Four was probably the big one because it's one of the hardest out there. A hole like that definitely improves the day.”

It was four holes into the back nine, on the 13th, that Luke gained separation. He birdied the dog-legged, long par-4, and it gave him the cushion he needed as he turned up a bogey on the hazardous 14th. He added two more bogeys on holes 16 and 18 for the 2-over finish.

Badker didn’t have the benefit of a birdie cushion entering the 14th, and after back-to-back bogeys and another on the 17th, finished 3-over.

It was a four-way tie at third with Houghton’s Marino Pisani and Brady Schmierer, Ishpeming Westwood’s Tyler Annala and Kingsford’s Matt Solda with 80 strokes apiece.

Following Houghton in the team standings was Calumet with 334 strokes, Menominee with 341 and Kingsford with 347.

Luke finished his thoughts with his thanks.

“I just want to say thanks to my teammates for all the years coming up,” he said. “Also, my family, they’ve been a huge support, and definitely coach Ben (Smith) and Rick Rhoades for being out there. It was a big support for them this year to be with me, and I definitely needed Rick for a few rulings to figure out the best shots here and there. It’s nice to have someone to be able to connect with. Thank you to everybody. It was an amazing experience. I really enjoyed it. Thank you to Brady too. I love the competition we had this entire year.”

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PHOTOS: (Top) Marquette’s Joe Luke follows through on an iron shot during his run to the Upper Peninsula Division 1 individual championship Thursday. (Middle) Menominee’s Brady Badker sends an approach toward the green during the UPD1 Final. (Photos by Justin St. Ours.)

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.)