Flashback 1980: Thrilling Conclusions

June 2, 2020

By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half

With all Spring sports canceled for 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been a season of recalling fond memories as we all sit and wait for the return of high school athletics in Michigan.

This time we’re diving 40 years deep to the Baseball and Softball Finals from 1980, which saw five of eight championship games decided by two runs or fewer and mostly on late-inning dramatics while played at various parks across the Lower Peninsula.

Here’s a flashback to the 1980 championship rounds:


A strong argument could be made that Matt Costello’s ninth-inning heroics rank among the top moments in MHSAA tournament history.

In the days when the state Semifinals and Finals were played on the same day, and split across four separate sites spread across the state, an impressive 1,025 fans turned out for the Class A title game between Royal Oak Kimball and Grosse Pointe North, hosted at Wyandotte’s Memorial Park.

For Kimball, it was the fourth appearance in the state title game. The Knights, led by coach Frank Clouser, had appeared in the Class A title game for three straight years, 1971-1973, earning a championship in 1972 with a 3-1 win over Detroit Western.

It was the first appearance in the Finals for North and coach Frank Sumbera. Earlier in the year, the Norsemen had been the top-ranked team in the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Class A poll, but the squad hit a mid-May speedbump. Within five hours, North dropped two games, falling to St. Clair Shores Lakeview, 6-5, then 3-2 to Harper Woods, which was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in Class C. North rebounded, and finished the regular season as the top team in the Class A rankings with a 23-4 mark.

North opened the championship game scoring with three quick runs in the first inning. Kimball made it 3-1 in the bottom half of the inning, then grabbed a 4-3 lead in the third as 6-foot-4 senior Dave Kopf, (a 32nd-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers one week earlier) crushed a three-run homer. North tied the game at 4-4 in the sixth when junior Bill Babcock led off with a double, moved to third on a sacrifice, then scored when the throw to first base on Keith Schatko’s suicide squeeze bunt went wild. Following a pop out, Costello picked up his first RBI on the day, on a double over the left fielder’s head that scored Schatko, giving North a 5-4 lead.

Babcock, who had tossed a 2-0 no-hitter earlier in the day in the Norsemen’s Semifinal against Wayne Memorial, replaced starter Tom Shook in the bottom of the sixth inning. Following a walk, Kimball’s Scott Sturley smashed a two-out triple to tie the game, 5-5.

Neither team could push across a run in the last inning of regulation play. Kimball threatened in the bottom of the eighth, notching a leadoff double. But the danger ended when North catcher Mike Seagram picked off the runner.

Sumbera told Wright Wilson of the Grosse Pointe News that the play was the “turning point of the game.”

Singles by Babcock and Scott Young and a walk by Al Lucido in the top of the ninth inning set the stage for Costello.

“I had Matt swinging away because they were charging their infielders all the time, so we were playing for the hit,” said Sumbera to the Detroit Free Press following the title contest.

“I was just trying to get the run in when I went up there,” stated Costello, who “cracked a 2-2 pitch over the left field fence, more than 365 feet away.”

“When I hit it I knew it was going to be a home run. That was the greatest.”

Costello finished with three hits and an MHSAA championship game-record five RBIs, a mark that stood alone until Jacob Holt from Muskegon Catholic Central tied the record 35 years later, in 2015.

Trailing 9-5, Kimball loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning and scored a run on a two-out wild pitch. But a pop-out to first ended the rally, and North grabbed a 9-6 win and its first diamond title.

Sumbera , who had taken the reins of the North program in 1973, would lead the Norsemen to a second title in 2006. Today, he ranks third in all-time baseball victories in Michigan after a 45-year coaching career.

Flint Powers downed Mount Pleasant 8-7 in a Class B thriller, played at Lansing’s Municipal Park. Mount Pleasant grabbed a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning, before Powers’ Jim Morrissey popped a two-run homer to knot the game in the fourth. The Chargers added two more runs in the top of the fifth, but Mount Pleasant shortstop Bob Lee followed in the bottom of the inning with a two-run shot that tied the game at 4-4.

Powers took a 7-4 lead in the sixth inning and upped the lead to 8-4 on a Mike Morgan bases-loaded single in the seventh. With the game on the line, Mount Pleasant’s Scott Tuma blasted a two-out, three-run homer to cut the margin to 8-7. Morgan, who tossed a five-hit shutout complete game for Powers in its win over Farmington Hills Harrison earlier in the day, allowed two more runners before striking out pinch-hitter Todd Tuma to end the game.

Rain delayed the second Class C Semifinal game and postponed the championship contest until Monday, June 16. Leading 5-0 after three innings, Dundee finished off Lansing Catholic Central 7-2, then topped Parchment 3-1 for its first and only baseball crown. Norm Pentercs, who would later pitch at Grand Valley State, struck out 11 and allowed only four hits in the title game. Those games were played at Broome Park in Flint.

A seventh-inning walk-off bases-loaded single by Scott Trudell broke a 1-1 deadlock to give Grass Lake a 2-1 win over Muskegon Western Michigan Christian in Class D, hosted at Marshall High School. David Knoll allowed just three hits and struck out 13 for the win. It was the second appearance in a Final on the year for WMC, which fell to Detroit East Catholic in an MHSAA basketball championship game in March.


Veronica Miller’s single with two outs in the fifth inning drove home Julie Guerra, snapping a 1-1 tie and propelling Flint Carman to a 2-1 victory over East Detroit and all-state pitcher Roxanne ‘Rocky’ Szczesniak in the Class A championship game. Linda Allen picked up her second win on the day. Earlier she tossed a shutout in Carman’s 14-0 victory over Holland West Ottawa. Szczesniak, who would later star at Wayne State, allowed only three hits in the contest after delivering a one-hitter in East Detroit’s 11-3 victory over Ann Arbor Huron in the Semifinal.

“Everything worked great for me today,” Deanne Moore told the Lansing State Journal after tossing a two-hit, 6-0 shutout in Fenton’s Class B Final victory over Grand Rapids Northview. “I knew I had to pitch strikes and my fastball was moving around. I threw a couple of changeups to keep them guessing.”

In the title game, Moore opened the scoring with a solo home run in the second inning. It was followed by a triple by Sandy Thornton, who scored when Theresa Flynn singled up the middle. Moore scored again in the fourth inning following sacrifices by Sue Mora and Flynn, for a 3-0 lead. Northview’s fate was sealed in the fifth as Fenton tallied three more on Thornton’s two-run single and a fielder’s choice by Lori Glass.

It was the third-consecutive Class B title for the Tigers. Moore, a senior righthander, finished with a 24-2 record and would go on to an All-American career at Michigan State, earning entry into MSU’s Hall of Fame in 1996.

Rhonda Thran added her name to the MHSAA Championship Game Record Book, knocking in five runs as Berrien Springs routed Lakeview 11-4 in the Class C title game. Thran matched the RBI record set by DeWitt’s Cindy White in the Panthers’ Class C title victory over Center Line St. Clement in 1977. The sophomore centerfielder, along with second baseman Jan Dowell, was one of two regulars who were also starters on the Shamrocks’ volleyball team that won the Class C championship during the 1979-80 winter sports season.

Junior Cindy DeFay fired a three-hitter in the championship. “The whole team really wanted this one. I had a good feeling that we were going to win so I was ready to play. It’s the best game I’ve pitched all year,” she told Jack Walkden of the Benton Harbor Herald-Palladium following the game. DeFay had “missed much of the first half of the season with a severely sprained ankle.”

In the Semifinal, Berrien Springs downed Leroy Pine River 10-8 and banged out 21 hits across the day’s two games, highlighted by five hits by both Rachel Roots and Sheila Duffel, followed with four by Thran.

A police escort guided the team and its retiring coach, Roy Rennhack, back into town after the games played across the state in Oak Park near Detroit – “More than 150 cars joined the caravan, which paraded the team through town atop firetrucks.”

“It was a perfect going away present,” said Rennhack.

It was truly an amazing sports year for the Shamrocks girls, who also won Regional titles in track and basketball. Between 1979 and 1985, Berrien Springs volleyball teams won five Finals volleyball titles. (Those squads were honored in the second year of the MHSAA’s Legends of the Game program in 1999).

In Class D, Central Lake scored a dramatic 2-1 win over Vestaburg. In the top of the seventh inning, Vestaburg had knotted the game at 1-1 before relinquishing a walk to Pam Ellison in the bottom of the inning that set things in motion for the Trojans. Ellison stole second, then advanced to third on a sacrifice by Wendy Johnson. Following a walk to Wendy Baker, catcher Mary Hopp singled Ellison home for the win. Central Lake had finished as state runner-up to Laingsburg in 1978, then fell to Morenci 6-5 in the Semifinals in 1979.

“We were a pretty close-knit team,” said Ellison., recapping the rally.

“I had fantastic kids,” recalled coach Gary Johnson 40 years later. “We played a lot of big-time schools. I never had a second pitcher when I coached. Back then, if you had a girl who could throw a fastball you were at the top of the world. We had Judy Koens.“

Koens allowed just four-hits in the title game and along with Hopp was named to The Associated Press Class D all-state team as Central Lake finished 33-4. Koens would pitch at Central Michigan, posting stellar ERAs during her four seasons and earning all-Mid-American Conference honors in 1984 as a senior.

Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.

PHOTOS: (Top) Berrien Springs celebrates its 1980 Class C softball championship. (Middle) Grosse Pointe North claims the Class A baseball title in its first Finals under coach Frank Sumbera. (Below) Central Lake improves from Class D softball runner-up in 1978 to champion two years later. (Photos gathered by Ron Pesch.)

Kingsley Standouts Big Hits on Diamond, as Friends to 4th-Hour Classmates

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)