Skyline's Favorite Status Stands with 1st Finals Win

By Tom Lang
Special for

June 12, 2021

EAST LANSING – Ann Arbor Skyline was ranked No. 1 all season, which meant bringing high expectations into the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Boys Golf Finals as the prohibitive favorite.

And with a lineup that boasted two freshmen, the Eagles delivered at Michigan State’s Forest Akers West.

Skyline recorded a two-day total 594, placing ahead of runner up Detroit Catholic Central (603), plus Traverse City West and Forest Hills Northern (each at 613).

Three of the Eagles’ five players had never been to the Finals before. 

“So, they really didn’t understand what all the hype was, which kind of served as a good thing, to not know exactly what they were getting into,” said Skyline head coach Ashley Mantha. “But once they got here, they understood what I was talking about. Fortunately, our (program has) been here before so I could share with the newbies on what to expect.”

Skyline had four players place among the individual top 25 to pace the field. Freshman Ieuan Jones was part of a three-way tie for runner-up to medalist Davis Codd of Brighton, followed by Skyline brothers Vibhav and Vimal Alokam at T13 and T23, respectively, plus Mitchell Strickland at T23.

“Usually we’re the underdogs (coming into a state final), so there a big role reversal today,” Mantha said. “We’ve never been in this situation so how do we prepare for people coming for us, so to speak?

“Each player has like a key phrase I can use to get them in the right head space. We talk about things like how they play with their buddies, or I say ‘Washtenaw,’ just little things that kind of bring them back down to their own game.”

Mantha pointed out how the win was truly a team victory as Skyline counted a normally fifth-player score toward Friday’s first round.

“Luke Richard, my junior, shot his best season score on Friday in the five spot,” she said. Normally he’s in the high 70s but he got a 74 for us, which counted because my No. 1 shot his worst score (on Friday). You can talk about how we should play, but he really played to the moment.”

On the individual side, Brighton’s Codd had spent the last two weeks at an NHL prospects hockey camp in Erie, Pa. – and had to return there immediately Saturday night to play in a game Sunday in front of several NHL pro teams’ scouts. 

Yet that didn’t stop the high school golfer from returning to Michigan twice to become co-medalist at his Regional and finish the season at Forest Akers.

Brighton golfAnd did he ever finish it in style.

Codd came back from 12th place after Friday’s first-round score of 73 to shoot 5-under par 67 on day two (140 total), to win the individual championship.

“Going into this day I had a game plan to go out there and make as many birdies as I could,” Codd said. “The entire day I didn’t look at the leaderboard once. After I walked off that green (No. 13) I kind of figured it out (that I’d won). But I had the same game plan all day, to go and attack the hole.”

Attack he did.

Codd birdied his first four holes (Nos. 14-17), and after some up-and-down play midway through the round, he stepped up to the last hole, the par-5 13th, and ripped a drive down the long, skinny fairway to within wedge length. He made a two-putt birdie to top off his final round as a high school player, who happens to double as a professional hockey player for the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit. Prior to joining the Spirit, he finished Division 1 golf runner-up as a freshman and sixth as a sophomore, and he was able to compete again this golf season because the Spirit have not played in over a year.

Codd out-paced three others who tied for runner-up at 143 – Murphy Kehoe of Traverse City West, first-round leader Jack Zubkus from Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern, and Jones of Skyline.

“When you start off with four birdies in a row, that gets the wheels going around and sets a pace,” Codd said. “But I had just a different level of focus on those first four holes, and when that happened, I felt like it was my day, and my day to win, so it was great to start that way.”

Codd said he didn’t get in a practice round for Finals, so he didn’t set any expectations for himself. 

“I just went out there to try and enjoy my last two rounds as a high schooler, and it worked out,” he said.

“It’s pretty special to be a part of this Brighton program,” Codd added about the team that took seventh place Saturday. “I was just so fortunate to have my coach, Jimmy Dewling, such a great golf mind and such a great friend, to guide my golf career these last few years and I can’t thank him enough. And I’ve had great teammates over the years. We weren’t the best my first couple of years, but the character in that group set this program on where it’s headed. It’s been a couple of great years in this program.”

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PHOTOS: (Top) Ann Arbor Skyline's Vibhav Alokam lines up a putt during Friday's first round. (Middle) Brighton’s Davis Codd connects with one of his putts during Friday’s first round. (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.)