Veteran Comets Prepping for Title Run

By Pam Shebest
Special for

March 27, 2018

KALAMAZOO – Golf, barbeque and honoring Martin Luther King Jr. are on the agenda for Kalamazoo Christian’s boys golf team during spring break.

The six varsity players, coach Brian Seifert and their families are headed to Memphis next week.

“We plan to take in a couple of golf courses down there and also have the opportunity to play the TPC Southwind that hosts the FEDEX St. Jude Classic, so we’re excited about that,” Seifert said.

“We’re going to be at the Martin Luther King Jr. 50th anniversary of his assassination on the actual day, April 4, so it’s a little bit of an inspiration trip along with the golf to get us focused for a big run on the year.

“We’ll be down there to play some golf and eat some barbeque.”

Three of the Comets, who as a team finished third at the Lower Peninsula Division 4 Final last year, had a bit of a delay in starting this season.

They were part of the K-Christian basketball team that lost in the Class D Quarterfinals last Tuesday.

While the rest of the golfers were already practicing, seniors Colin Sikkenga and John Cramer plus junior Ben Cramer did not pick up the clubs until Wednesday.

“The speeds are a lot different,” John Cramer said of the two sports. “After a little bit, you start to get used to golf again. The first week and a half or so, it’s a little tough to make that transition.”

Next sport, new home

Once they make that transition, the team will start the journey to what it hopes is another shot at an MHSAA title.

“It’s tough to win,” Sikkenga said. “It’s just two days of 18 holes. You’ve just got to get really hot those two days.

“That’s what it comes down to. Anyone can really win it. It just depends on how well you play those two days.”

Last season’s three other varsity golfers also are back: senior Derek Block and juniors Elijah Devries and Josh Bouma.

Although they lost their former home course when Thornapple Creek Golf Club closed last year, they moved to a closer one: Kalamazoo Country Club.

“That is pretty awesome,” said Sikkenga, a finalist for the coaches association’s Mr. Golf Award last year. “I’m excited. Hackett (Catholic Prep) would do their invite there, and I’ve done that since freshman year.”

The country club has not been home to a high school team in 40 years, according to Seifert.

“After 40 years, they said maybe this is the year to do it, and our ‘ask’ was at the right time,” he said. “It’s a matter of timing.”

Two of the golfers, Ben Cramer and Bouma, both caddy there in the summer and know the course layout very well.

“That will help,” Cramer said. “But most of us on the team have played the course quite a few times.”

Valuable experiences

Sikkenga and the Cramer brothers all started swinging the clubs at a very young age, but in different ways.

Sikkenga’s parents do not play golf, while dad Rick Cramer had a membership at Thornapple and started his sons in the sport. 

“I had the Little Tike’s blue plastic club and I just started hitting balls,” Sikkenga said. “I loved to hit the ball really far. I think that’s why I liked it so much.”

Hitting the long ball is just one asset that put the scratch golfer on varsity all four years.

“The thing about Colin that is good for everybody else in his leadership is that he is so patient playing golf,” Seifert said of his senior captain. “That’s a real important asset to have in golf because it just takes so long to get around, and you get groups that get stacked up on top of each other. 

“Nothing rattles him. That’s a real bonus when you’re playing golf.”

Sikkenga will attend Oakland University on a golf scholarship with an eye on a pro career.

“My goal since I’ve been little has been to play professionally,” he said. “It’s definitely a goal that is not easy by any stretch of the imagination.”

Oakland golf coach Nick Pumford talked about Sikkenga on the college’s web site.

"Colin brings a lot of national exposure and experience to our program,” he said. “Not only has Colin tested his game against the best players in the country, he's had success doing so.

“I'm looking forward to Colin carrying over that success and experience into our program next season.”

Besides playing their opponents, the Cramers also compete against each other.

“Oh yeah, there’s always a competition with my brother,” John Cramer said. “We always compare scores after the round. I usually win.”

But when a threesome includes their dad, “We’re pretty competitive because we’re all pretty much around the same kind of scoring level,” Ben Cramer said. 

“It’s all fun, but our dad usually wins. He’s better than both of us.”

Let the fun begin

While the brothers share camaraderie on the course, one thing they do not share is their clubs.

“His are too short for me,” the 6-foot-5 Ben Cramer said. “(John) is 5-7.”

Seifert calls John Cramer the Magic Man.

“He can get up and down from spaces that most people can’t,” the coach said. “He likes to scramble when he plays golf. It’s not uncommon for him to run together five, six long putts in a row for par or birdie just to keep the round going.

“Golf’s a matter of streaks sometimes. You get on a roll, and he can find those sometimes and put quality rounds together.”

It is also a mental game, Ben Cramer said.

“You have to be focused all the time when you’re around the ball. You have to focus on how far you’re hitting, what the wind’s doing.”

Cramer describes himself as the jokester of the team.

“I joke around a lot,” he said. “I lighten the mood. I’m never really sad.”

Seifert agreed.

“Ben carries us well with his humor,” he said. “The whole team is a load of fun to be with. For him, he’s so quiet and unassuming that you would never know if he’s having a good round or a bad round. It’s kind of like calling him patient. 

“He doesn’t get down on himself. I think that’s where I noticed him being the most improved last year. He got better with each shot. Even if he did hit a bad shot, the next one was right on the money.”

None of the three boys have had hole-in-one, but their coach, who is a pastor at Milwood Community Church, has had two.

“My mom taught me to play golf when I was 5, and I haven’t stopped since,” said Seifert, who grew up outside of Seattle.

“For a number of years I managed a golf resort, so I played a lot of golf that way.”

In addition to his two aces, “I also had a double eagle, an albatross,” he said. “I’ll take that.

“Golf’s meant to be having fun, and it’s hard to score when you’re not having fun. If you’re not enjoying it, there’s no point doing it.”

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Kalamazoo Christian’s Ben Cramer lines up a putt. (Middle top) Clockwise from top left: Kalamazoo Christian coach Brian Seifert, senior Colin Sikkenga, senior John Cramer and junior Ben Cramer. (Middle) Seifert, left, and Sikkenga survey the scene during play last season. (Below) John Cramer putts last spring. (Action photos by Daniel J. Cooke [top two] and Cheryl TenBrink, head shots by Pam Shebest.)

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.)