Special Year Thanks to No Specialization

August 7, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

As we embark on another sports-filled school year Monday, we can look to a recent Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central grad for the value of a school year filled with sports.

As specialization at the highs school level continues to be debated, Bryce Windham will start his college baseball career this fall at Division I Old Dominion University – after playing baseball but also football and basketball for the Falcons.

The MHSAA has long advocated athletes taking on as many sports as they have interest instead of focusing on just one in pursuit of a college scholarship – a position that’s received plenty of public backing of late, be it from stars of the U.S. women’s soccer team after their World Cup championship run or former Lansing Waverly multi-sport athlete John Smoltz during his enshrinement in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

Enter Windham – who easily could’ve been excused for focusing on baseball, or even basketball as his dad is the St. Mary’s varsity boys coach. Instead, Bryce quarterbacked the football team to last season’s Division 6 championship – breaking Ithaca’s national-best 69-game winning streak in the Final – before being named Class C Player of the Year by The Associated Press in basketball and earning a Most Valuable Player honor at the baseball state coaches association all-star game at Comerica Park this spring.

All three of Windham's teams reached at least the MHSAA Quarterfinals.

“His participation in football and basketball helped land a Division 1 baseball scholarship to Old Dominion. They were able to see his athleticism in basketball and toughness in football, and ODU’s coach loved it,” dad and hoops coach Randy Windham said.

“He probably would’ve given up football, and that ended up his greatest memory by winning a state championship.”

Click to read about Windham’s multitude of accomplishments as reported last month by the Monroe Evening News.

Honors Abound

National coaching honors were bestowed on a trio of Michigan coaches over the summer:

  • Retired Trenton ice hockey coach Mike Turner – the winningest hockey coach in MHSAA history with a record of 629-126-52 from 1974-81 and then 1995-2014 – was named National Coach of the Year in Special Sports by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association. His teams won 11 MHSAA titles and finished runner-up four times. “I was there when the MHSAA added hockey as one of their sanctioned sports and crowned their first MHSAA state championships in 1975. At that time there were 60-70 high school teams participating, and now there are 170,” Turner said. “It has been great to be a part of the advancements made in the sport of high school hockey, with more teams participating, more player development, and more opportunities that exist for players after high school.”

  • Traverse City Central boys track and field and cross country coach John Lober won his second national coaching honor of the 2014-15 school year, named the NHSACA Coach of the Year for track and field to go with a previous honor earned in January from the National Federation of State High School Associations. He has coached the Traverse City Central boys track and field team since 1977 and also the boys cross country team since 1989. His 1992 track team won the Class A championship, and he has coached 17 individual MHSAA Finals champions. He was inducted into the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006. 

  • Ann Arbor Pioneer assistant girls swimming and diving coach Liz Hill was named the Assistant Coach of the Year for all girls sports by the NHSACA. Hill, a former All-American at the University of Michigan and standout sprinter at Pioneer, began assisting her husband Denny Hill in 1983 before becoming his fulltime assistant a few seasons later. Together they’ve led the Pioneers girls to 15 MHSAA team titles, the last two as co-head coaches.

Michigan Mourns

Fremont and the high school athletic community statewide mourned the death July 21 of longtime coach Rich Tompkins, who led Fremont’s boys cross country teams to six MHSAA cross country championships including three and a runner-up finish during his last decade of coaching before retiring in 1997.

The Muskegon Chronicle reported that his boys and girls cross country teams and boys track and field team combined for 45 league championships, with his boys cross country team winning 116 straight duals from 1977-88. Tompkins was executive director of the Michigan High School Coaches Association for more than a decade and served on its board for more than two decades.

Click to read more from the Chronicle on Tompkins’ legacy.

Officials in the News

The Monroe County Officials Association took to the county fair to encourage passers-by to “Be the Referee” – and received 47 sign-ups from people interested in the avocation. Visitors to an MCOA booth at the fair were told in some detail what is involved with being an MHSAA official, and those who then signed up to find out more about officiating football, basketball, baseball or softball (sports the MCOA trains for and schedules) will be invited to an orientation session where they will become eligible for one of 20 complimentary registration fees for this school year.

The West Michigan Officials Association marked a decade of support at the start of this summer for the Visually Impaired Sports and Activity Day, sponsored by the Helen DeVos Children’s Foundation. The WMOA has contributed nearly $18,000 to the event over the last 10 years as well as taking part in the event, which includes a number of sports and other activities.

The Saginaw Athletic Officials Association sent along this photo of five members who worked 2013-14 MHSAA Finals, from left: Mark Jarlock (baseball), Tom Behmlander (softball), Scott Helmka (football), Dale Brown (softball and football) and Mark Schoenow (football). The Baseball Final was Jarlock’s first; the other officials had worked Finals in the past.

PHOTO: (Top) Monroe St. Mary quarterback Bryce Windham unloads a pass during last season's Division 6 Final win over Ithaca at Ford Field. 

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.)