Keep on Coaching

February 1, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

A few weeks ago, I finally got my first chance this season to watch a friend coach his basketball team. After guiding some others at the lower levels, this is his first time running the varsity – something he wasn't sure he wanted to do with a 1-year-old just learning to walk, but a challenge he ended up taking on to the benefit of all those involved.

Simply put, he’s good. I've seen a lot of teams and a lot of coaches over the past 15 years, and although I wouldn't know much of what to do if I were walking the sideline, I felt pretty qualified in telling him I was impressed – even if he didn't buy that I was offering an unbiased opinion. The best news is he’s gone from not sure about this a few months ago to talking about next season.

We know, at least anecdotally, that coaching continues to get more challenging. The time commitment has grown substantially to make running a program a year-round endeavor in a lot of sports at a lot of schools.

That commitment – especially for coaches with children of their own – was a main reason referred to in a New Haven Post-Chronicle story Saturday that noted 23 football coaching openings in Connecticut at one point this offseason. That state has 146 football teams – meaning roughly 15 percent will have new leaders this fall.

And that got me thinking about my friend, about how glad I am he’s given this a shot, and how I've seen so many others either not do so, or not stick around long despite having some pretty nice success.

A study published last winter in Interscholastic Athletic Administration magazine – a product of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association – noted some predictable results of a study that sought to determine the biggest challenges faced by first-year high school coaches.

The toughest according to the study was balancing the demands of coaching and teaching, experienced by nearly half the respondents – 98 percent of which coached high school teams and 81 percent of which are teachers.

The next six reasons all were noted by at least 30 percent of those in the study – personal fatigue, securing community support, securing and caring for facilities and equipment, parental contact, keeping non-starting players motivated, dealing with schedule interruptions and motivating athletes to achieve consistent, peak performance.

Nothing there is earth-shaking, and most if not all of these challenges are faced by high school coaches regardless of how long they've been in the field. But I got a little more perspective from some of the 32 items that ranked as least challenging to the first-year leaders – keeping in compliance with state and league regulations, dealing with substance abuse issues, teaching sport skills and creating a positive team atmosphere – things that seem most important, and yet appear to be easiest to do. I’m not sure what that tells us – but I think it tells us something.

Click to check out the entire three-page breakdown of the study, plus the researchers’ recommendations to remedy some of what first-year coaches face.

Giving back to Saginaw

I love reading about high-level athletes – like a star-studded group of alums from Saginaw – giving back to where they got their starts.

Pittsburgh Steelers star LaMarr Woodley made a big impact before the start of this school year by donating $60,000 to cover all participation fees for athletes in his former school district. The Saginaw News’ Hugh Bernreuter writes today about how Woodley (Saginaw High), the Philadelphia 76ers’ Jason Richardson (Saginaw Arthur Hill) and former Oakland Raiders standout Stu Schweigert (Saginaw Heritage) have combined to give more than $865,000 back to their home communities.

Bernreuter also mentions the non-monetary contributions of the Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green (Saginaw High) and former Indianapolis Colts receiver Blair White (Saginaw Nouvel).

Click to read more about it.

Quote(s) of the Week

While rifling through more papers on my desk, I found an article from the Washington Post from Sept. 2011 titled “How high school sports save our schools.” I was drawn to it in part because I spent more than a decade in a newsroom, and it was a piece by a reporter covering education who instead of reporting on school boards and the like, delved into the importance of interscholastic athletics to education as a whole.

He spoke of how participation continues to grow even as resources dwindle, and of data supporting that extracurriculars like sports are more effective than academic classes in teaching leadership, teamwork, time management and “other skills crucial for success in the workplace.” Later, he mentioned a study noting that those who participate in extracurriculars earned more a decade later.

Click here to read the entre piece. These passages struck me most.

“Coaches might be the only faculty members still allowed by our culture and educational practice to get tough with students not making the proper effort. They have the advantage of teaching what are essentially elective non-credit courses. They can insist on standards of behavior that classroom teachers often cannot enforce because the stakes of dismissing or letting students drop their courses are too high. …

“Students do better in activities they choose. If we provide more of them, led by committed adults … that can make a difference. We know the bad news about education. Dropout rates are high. Achievement scores are stagnant. But sports participation is going up, despite pressure to cut it back. Let’s cheer about that and look for a way to draw in more students.”

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.)