St Johns Says Good-Bye as Repeat Champ

June 10, 2017

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half

ALLENDALE – St. Johns boys golf coach Paul Sternburgh referred to it as a storybook ending.

And that’s exactly how it will read for a man heading into retirement and his band of departing seniors.

Sternburgh is retiring after 37 years as a coach, and his team sent him out with another title at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Final.

The Redwings repeated as champions Saturday afternoon at The Meadows at Grand Valley State with a two-day team score of 603.

St. Johns bested runner-up Flint Powers Catholic, which finished with a 627.

“You just can’t write a script better than this – to go back-to-back,” Sternburgh said. “Getting the first one is hard enough, but to repeat. Granted, we had the same guys back and had a lot going for us, but I couldn’t be any happier or any more satisfied. It just doesn’t get any better. You ride into the sunset with a smile on your face.”

Sternburgh retired from teaching in 2007, but continued coaching.

Senior Eric Nunn said it was “really special” to end both his high school career and his longtime coach’s with another Finals crown.

“The dude loves us more than anything, and he’s been with me and Zach for four years now and he is always telling us how special and talented we are,” Nunn said. “I’m so happy that we could get it for him again.”

Nunn and teammate Zach Rosendale were the catalysts in the victory.

The Michigan State-bound Rosendale wrapped up his banner prep career with an individual Finals championship.

He fired a closing-round 2-under-par 70 to defeat East Lansing’s Tony Fuentes by four strokes.

Rosendale shot 72 on the first day and finished at 142. He trailed by three strokes entering the final round, but emerged as the only golfer to go under par.  

“I just had the mindset that I’m chasing,” said Rosendale, who recorded four birdies. “I have to play well, because I never know how anyone else is doing. I think they are playing well, so in my head that makes me want to play better.

“I play really well in the wind. I keep my ball low, so I think that was a key factor. Everything was working well. I was hitting the ball well off the tee, and my putting could’ve been better, but lag putting was great. I think keeping the ball low really won me the tournament.”

Sternburgh said Rosendale’s play was indicative of his entire season.

“He’s Mr. Consistent, and he has been all year,” he said. “I think his highest score all year was 75, and his low was 66. He hits everything consistent, and he doesn’t spray the ball. He’s a very solid putter and accurate with hitting greens. There is nobody that has come through St. Johns who is as steady and consistent as Zach has been.”

The Redwings also received stellar scores from others.

Nunn posted a pair of rounds in the 70s (71-76) and tied for third. Seniors Jack Bouck (80-78) and Nate Brown (77-81) each had a 158, while junior Zeke Ely finished with a 165.

St. Johns, which won the program’s first Final a year ago, carded a 298 on the first day to gain a 14-stroke cushion.

“We worked hard on keeping it in play and played better than I expected, although I wasn’t as surprised about the 298 this year as I was last year,” Sternburgh said. “I was more surprised by the lead. You just don’t get a 14-stroke lead like that.”

The Redwings squeaked out a four-stroke win over East Lansing last season, but this one was less stressful.

“Last year was nerve-wracking because we didn’t know where we stood, and it was so close,” Nunn said. “This year with the live scoring and Coach telling us where we were so we were all pretty calm (today). To go out like this, all four seniors and coach, just means a ton.”

The Redwings drew motivation from a loss at last week’s Regional. They finished runner-up to Flint Powers Catholic on their home course, but reversed the outcome when it mattered most.

“We didn’t play bad as a team (at Regionals), we just didn’t play great and to our full potential,” Rosendale said. “But I’m glad on the big stage, we actually did it. Our team played well, and it’s definitely the best way to go out.”

The Chargers placed ninth last year in Division 3, but moved to Division 2 this spring. A strong final-round score of 310 enabled them to jump from fifth place after the first day to runner-up.

“I was glad to see the wind come up because we play our absolute best golf in the wind,” Flint Powers Catholic coach Robert Beach said. “I know it sounds ridiculous and goes against logic, but I know my team. And when the wind came up, I thought we had a good chance to move up in the standings and they pulled it off.”

Junior Zack Hopkins finished among the individual top 10 with a 154 (79-75) for the Chargers, while senior Joe Coriasso was one stroke back at 155 (77-78).

“We beat St. Johns last week so our boys knew we had a chance, but St. Johns played lights out,” Beach said. “We played good, they played great. We tip our hat to them, but I’m always thrilled to take home a trophy and put another banner up in the gym.”

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Grosse Ile’s Jack Tucker and St. Johns’ Zach Rosendale play together during Saturday’s second round of the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Final. (Middle) East Lansing’s Tony Fuentes watches one of his shots out of the brush at The Meadows. (Click to see more from

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.)