Mercier Repeats, Chassell Earns 1st Team Title since 1995

By Todd Rose
Special for Second Half

June 4, 2021

GLADSTONE – Chassell edged Powers North Central and individual champion Bryson Mercier by two strokes Thursday to win the MHSAA Upper Peninsula Division 3 team championship at Oaks Caddyshack Club in Gladstone.

The Panthers carded a 377 to the Jets’ 379. The top three were capped off by Engadine at 426.

“It’s just been a really good season,” said Panthers coach Erik Crowley. “It’s not a very long season up here, so we made really good time of the work we were able to do. We saw a lot of improvement from the team. Just a really fortunate season. (We had) lots of good kids, and they all improved a lot.”

The runner-up finish was the highest in North Central’s Finals history on the golf course.

“Spring sports are a difficult time because of weather and sharing athletes with other sports,” said North Central coach Gerald Whitens. “I am so proud of our boys and girls teams for their efforts preparing for this tournament.”

North Central junior Bryson Mercier shot 73 to take the individual win ahead of Ontonagon’s Tomas Immonen (75).

Mercier also was the Division 3 champion as a freshman in 2019 before COVID-19 forced last season to be canceled.

“It’s always nice to get a win,” Mercier said. “I left a couple shots out there, but overall, I played pretty well. (Tomas Immonen), who took second, he played a really good round today. I thought he did very well.”

Chassell golfThe win, Mercier said, wasn’t without its challenges

“The course played pretty tough with the wind,” he said. “I thought I bounced back from a couple bad shots and am pretty happy with how I played.

“I’m really proud of my team. Really proud of my team,” Mercier added. “Second place, that’s the first time our school has ever gotten a runner-up or finalist, so I’m very proud of my team.”

Whitens spoke highly of Mercier’s performance and overall attitude toward the game and school.

“We are led by the top golfer in the U.P., and his score supports that,” he said. “Bryson is an extremely dedicated young man, whether it's academics or sports. Bryson has always put forth the effort to be the best he can be.

“I have had the pleasure of watching him grow up with a golf club in his hand and driving around with his dad on a golf course for hours every day since he was able to walk. I am so proud of him and the way he carries himself on and off the course.”

Immonen, in his final golf event, shot a personal best at 75.

“Just to say that I can be somewhat close to (Mercier) is pretty good,” said Immonen. “He usually beats me pretty bad every meet, so it was nice to come out here and shoot 75.”

Immonen gave a special thanks to his coach Brady Guilbault. “Thank you Brady Guilbault for being the best golf coach ever,” he said.

Cedarville’s Jay Freel and Chassell’s Dean Pietila tied for third individually at 84. Chassell’s team championship was its second in the sport, with the first coming in 1995. The Panthers also finished Division 3 runners-up in 2011.

“It feels good to finally accomplish something after putting in long hours at the golf course,” said Pietila. “Things got a little rough right off the start. I bogeyed a par-three I shouldn't have. Once all the nerves left, then I started settling in and playing golf.”

The rest of the individual top 10 were as follows: Caleb Kohlmann at 89 (Cedarville), Todd Rautiola (Chassell) and Davin Hill both at 93 (Dollar Bay), Ethan Kopt at 97 (Crystal Falls Forest Park), Brayden Wilhour at 98 (Cooks Big Bay de Noc), and Devin Kipela (Chassell) and Brett LaBonte (Powers North Central) both shooting 99.

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PHOTOS: (Top) North Central’s Bryson Mercier putts during his Division 3 championship round Thursday. (Middle) Chassell poses with its first Finals winner’s trophy in the sport since 1995. (Photos by Todd Rose.)

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.)