Lumen Christi Lives up to Links Tradition

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

June 9, 2016

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half 

JACKSON – Every city has things for which it is known. Jackson is no different.

Jackson is the birthplace of the Republican Party.

It claims to have originated –and perfected – the Coney Island hot dog.

And Jackson is home to some really great golf.

Just what makes Jackson such a great golf town?

“Maybe it’s the water,” Jackson Lumen Christi boys coach Dave Swartout said with a smile. “I think the fact that there are 20 courses in the county certainly helps. So anybody who is young and wants to play golf has the opportunity, and luckily for a lot of people in this area, especially as juniors, you can play golf for not a lot of money. It’s not as expensive of a sport as some people might think it is.”

According to the National Golf Foundation’s annual report this year, Jackson is second in the state to Monroe and 12th in the country for 18-hole golf courses per capita. And that has led to some sensational golf out of Jackson on the high school level.

Dating back to 1937, when Jackson High School won the Class A title, Jackson County boys golf teams have totaled 30 MHSAA Finals boys championships, led by Lumen Christi, which has 14. Lumen Christi also has won four girls golf titles.

“I play golf almost every day,” Lumen Christi senior Will Double said. “It does help when you have the availability to play different courses every day and play different holes.”

The Titans appear to be in the mix for another title. They are ranked No. 2 in Lower Peninsula Division 3 going into this weekend’s championship tournament at Forest Akers East on the campus of Michigan State University. Lumen Christi is coming off its 11th consecutive Regional championship last weekend.

“I really think we have a realistic chance to win it, but I’ve said that the last five years, too, and we’ve finished second and third,” Swartout said.

History of success

Lumen Christi has won an MHSAA-record 14 Finals championships in boys golf. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Lumen Christi opened in 1968 with the merger of Jackson St. Mary and Jackson St. John, and from 1954-61, St. Mary, coached by Ed Cimock, won eight consecutive Class C/D championships. That streak has not been matched or broken, and during it, St. John was the Class C/D runner-up in 1956.

Those St. Mary teams had real star power. Brothers Dave and Mike Hill led some of those teams and went on to enjoy excellent careers at the professional level. Dave won 13 titles on the PGA Tour and six more on the PGA Senior Tour, while Mike won three times on the PGA Tour and 13 times on the Senior Tour.

In 1972, the Hill brothers pulled off a unique feat, as both won a PGA Tour event in the same year.

Six years later, Lumen Christi won its first MHSAA Finals title – one year after the graduation of Steve Maddalena, who went on to win three Michigan Amateur titles. From 1981-86, Lumen Christi won six consecutive Class B titles – tied for the second-longest streak in MHSAA history to St. Mary’s eight in a row.

Star power, however, has not been a staple of Lumen Christi’s 14 championships. None of Lumen Christi’s championships included an individual MHSAA champion. Jamie Clark was the 2005 Division 3 champion – the only individual Finals champion in school history – and that team did not win the title.

Lumen Christi did have the 1991-92 Mr. Golf in Derek Robison, and although that team won the Class B championship, Robinson was not the individual winner.

In Class B, the Titans had 10 Finals titles and two runner-up finishes. In Division 3, they have four titles with four runner-up finishes.

Lumen Christi is coming off a third-place finish in 2015, which to most schools would be an amazing accomplishment. But for the Titans, it was their worst finish at the Finals since 2008.

“We always go into the season with certain goals, and one is to always win the conference,” Swartout said. “In all the years I’ve coached, my teams have only not won the conference twice. Then, we’d like to keep the Regional streak alive.”

The architect

Swartout has been associated with the program since 1972, mostly as head coach. However, he’s not a natural-born golfer. At one time, he was a frustrated basketball coach.

“I spent one year as a freshman basketball coach at Lumen Christi in 1971 and got an ulcer from it,” he said. “The athletic director said, ‘Maybe you should try something else,’ and so did my doctor. The coaching job opened up in golf, and I couldn’t break 90, so I said, ‘I’ll do that for a while until I get a basketball job somewhere else.’ ”

He never left the program.

“I fell in love with the game and really spent a lot of time reading and watching other good golfers, trying to improve myself,” Swartout said. “I read everything I could get my hands on, because I couldn’t beat any of the kids on the team.”

Between his new-found love for the game and his passion to teach, Swartout became a successful golf coach. He also coached the Lumen Christi girls team when it won the 2004 Division 3 title.

“I was a teacher in the classroom and love teaching, and I think the combination of those two things helped me become a good coach,” he said. “One, from teaching, I could communicate ideas, and two, from all the studying and work I did to improve my game, I learned a lot about technique.

“I do like to think I have a pretty good eye. I can see the small things that a player might be doing. When the juniors get to the level when they are shooting anywhere from 76 to par or better, then when the timing begins to break down. It’s the little things that are making a difference. You’re not going all the way back to create a new swing; you’re trying to find that one little flaw that is impacting their play.”

In those early years, Swartout was working on his game as well as helping his players work on theirs. That, too, proved to be a winning combination.

“I had to really work to improve my game,” said Swartout, whose brother Steve has been his assistant coach the past three years. “I was 24 when I became coach, and by the time I was 30, I was a 2 handicap. In order to get from 90 to that, you have to work at it and learn things. I had to discover how I needed to swing to hit the ball correctly, so therefore from that and reading everything I could get my hands on, I could communicate that to the players.”

The players

While the game hasn’t changed much in the 45 years Swartout has been associated with the Lumen Christi team, the equipment certainly has made great improvements.

“I look back to when I started coaching in the 1970s and 80s and even into the early 90s,” he said. “You’re talking about high school teenagers hitting a golf ball – and not a very good golf ball but a softer golf ball – with wooden clubs that had a sweet spot the size of a dime. Yet I was still getting scores in the high 60s and low 70s, but equipment has made a huge difference.”

Instead of star power, the staple of Swartout’s successful teams at Lumen Christi has been team depth, and this year’s team is no different. Lumen Christi won the Regional at Hantz Golf Club in Tecumseh with four players scoring 82 or lower and a fifth at 85.

Double, the team captain and one of two seniors, led the way with a 75. He didn’t have a three-putt all day. He’s finished second or first in tournaments at least six times this season, and he’s been in the top 10 of every tournament he’s played except one.

“He’s not very big, but we call these kind of players sneaky long,” Swartout said. “You look at them and think they won’t hit the ball far, but he has fairly decent length off the tee.

“Over the course of the past four years, he has worked on every aspect of his game, and he is very dedicated to try and improve.”

The dedication really stood out during the summer after his freshman year.

“I’ve worked so hard to get to the point I’m at now,” Double said. “My freshman to sophomore year, I had no social life. It was golf every day, and I’m not lying. I think I saw my friends once or twice in the summer, but the next summer I hung out with them a little more.

“I’ve been here for four years and finished second twice and third last year. To most schools, that’s a great accomplishment, but to me that’s disappointing. I want to win a state championship.”

The next two players are senior Grant Konkle and junior Luke Girodat. Both shot 82 at the Regional.

“Konkle and Girodat are just flat-out long hitters,” Swartout said. “Both of them can hit it anywhere from 300 to the 340 range. It makes the par 4s rather short.

“Their biggest difficulty this year has been being consistent off the tee. You can hit it a long way, but if you go right or left, that is costing you shots.”

Konkle doesn’t want to leave Lumen Christi without winning an MHSAA championship.

“We’re out here every day working,” he said. “We get something to eat, hit range balls and then go play. We feel the pressure because nobody likes to take second. It’s tough.”

Juniors Logan Anuskiewicz and Riley Hestwood and freshman Tanner Schnell complete the top six players on the team. Schnell competed in the Regional and shot 80 while filling in for Hestwood.

“Hestwood was out of town and couldn’t go down there to practice,” Swartout said. “If you don’t know that course and have never played it before, you are not going to play it well. So I took the freshman, and he shoots 80 and finishes in the top 10.”

It is that sort of depth that gives Swartout confidence going into this weekend.

“I told them this the other day, and other coaches have told me this, too: In terms of having six players all capable of striking the ball, I’ve never had a team as good as this,” he said. “I told them, ‘Look at some of the great teams that I’ve had. I’ve had two teams that averaged 304. I had one team that broke 300 seven times and shot even-par 288 as a team, but never this depth and never as good as this team is.

“Their difficulty is they can’t stay away from the big numbers, and that is what has held us back. They might make a double-bogey here or a triple-bogey there, and if you make a couple of those, I don’t care how well you play the other 16 holes, you’re still going to shoot 80.”

Swartout hopes the players avoid those big numbers, and if they can do that, they will have a great chance.

“We’ve seen every team that is ranked around us, and I don’t think that there is a difference at the top,” Swartout said. “I am biased, but I think my team is better as a team. I’ve got five guys, and I can even throw the freshman in, who all are capable of shooting 75 or better on that course, and I don’t think the other teams have five guys who can do that.

“But we are going to have to play really, really well to win, because if the weather holds, you are going to see some really low scores.”

Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Jackson Lumen Christi’s Will Double tees off during last season’s Lower Peninsula Division 3 Final. (Middle) This season’s Titans: Front row, from left: Grant Konkle, Tanner Schnell, Will Double. Back row, from left: Dave Swartout, Luke Girodat, Logan Anuszkiewicz, Steve Swartout. Not pictured: Riley Hestwood. (Click to see more like top photo from; team photo by Chip Mundy)

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.)