Norway's Kelly, St. Ignace Score D2 Titles

June 2, 2016

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

NORWAY – There was considerable squirming at Oak Crest Golf Club on Thursday, and we're not even talking about the players who put on a good run for medalist honors.

No, the parents of the top two contenders tried to keep their emotions in check while taking the roller coaster ride as their sons battled for first place at the MHSAA Upper Peninsula Division 2 boys golf tournament.

Eventually, Tom and Michelle Kelly of Norway had a chance to exhale as their son Bryce emerged as medalist with a 78 to slip past 2015 champion Riley Thompson by a stroke. Kelly parred the last two holes while Iron River West Iron County's Thompson had a two-putt bogey-4 on No. 17 and then hit a short chip shot for a tap-in par-4 on the last hole.

Both contenders had a topsy-turvy back nine, to their chagrin and that of their parents. Kelly bogeyed holes 11-12-13 and doubled 15 while Thompson went double bogey-bogey to start and then hit an eagle-3 on No. 3 to pull within a stroke. He lost a stroke with a bogey on 14 but got one back with par on 15, and a birdie on 16 brought him into a tie that was broken on the short 17th.

"I can feel the good and the bad. I'm there cheering for him," Tom Kelly said. "It was hard when they had that swing. I could see the frustration in him."

Chris Thompson also was hanging on as his son went up-and-down. "You're learning a life lesson," he said of the difficult finish. "Bryce regrouped after a couple of bad shots, then Riley regrouped after he thought he was out of it.

"I've coached too long (football assistant, his son was quarterback) and I know they have to work through it themselves."

Bryce Kelly had the key shot on No. 18 when he reached the heavily-sloped green (low on the front) from a tough sidehill lie in the 18th right rough. "I knew I had to hit a good wedge on 18," he said. With the ball below his feet, he added, "I did not want to go right. I wanted to get it left and stay below the pin. I hit a pretty darn good shot."

Riley Thompson's drive on 18 was about 25 yards ahead of Kelly’s and just inside the 100-yard marker. However, Thompson’s approach was well short as he decelerated his wedge and fell about 10 yards shy of the green. He chipped on and nearly jarred the approach for the tying birdie.

"I've never really been in a situation at the close," he said of feeling the pressure down the stretch. "I made a mental mistake (while putting for par) on 17."

The eagle provided a major boost after a tough front.

"It (eagle) gave me confidence, but then I made some mistakes on the next two holes," he said. "I'm happy the way I played the back nine. I dug a deep hole after 10 but I showed some ability to grind through and get back at it."

Kelly, who is thinking about trying to be a walk-on for the Northern Michigan University golf team in the fall, was excited with his title. "This is a little special, especially doing it on my home course really topped it off."

St. Ignace claimed the team title with a 339, nine strokes fewer than Norway. Coach Claudette Brown watched her daughter Margo take medalist honors last year as a senior, then saw her boys team finish first a year later.

"I'm so overwhelmed. They are all pretty consistent," she said. "The boys were hoping to win. The kids can focus and do what needs to be done. I told them to focus on where they are."

She said the Saints made a big statement last month by winning a tournament in Charlevoix, beating perennial power Traverse City West in the process. She used three juniors and two freshmen for the Final on Thursday.

Junior Carter Tallaire, playing at No. 1, said "we thought we had a pretty good chance at it." He added that the Charlevoix tourney "gave us a lot of motivation. That really set the tone. We realized we could play good."

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Kyle Johnson of Iron Mountain blasts out of a tough lie in a bunker shy of the 16th green at Oak Crest Golf Club on Thursday during the Upper Peninsula Division 2 Final. (Middle) Bryce Kelly of Norway watches his birdie putt attempt roll just past the 18th hole. His par enabled him to win medalist honors with a 78. (Below) St. Ignace won the team championship; the team includes, from left, Andy Metz, Carter Tallaire, Kody Rickley, Hunter DeKeyser, Drew Marshall and coach Claudette Brown. (Photos by Denny Grall.)

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.)