1971: MHSAA Launches 'Big One' for Baseball

June 13, 2016

By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half

“It’s a big one,” said state director of athletics Al Bush, when asked about organizing the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s inaugural baseball tournament back in January 1971. “The idea has been under study for more than three years.”

After discussions with the MHSAA Representative Council, in mid-December a committee of seven coaches from various parts of the state gathered and built the framework for the tournament, according to Associated Press reports.

Still ranked among the Top 10 all-time fall classics, the Detroit Tigers’ 1968 World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals meant interest in the national pastime was on the rise in Michigan.

Bush noted that about 650 Michigan high schools had sponsored baseball in 1970, and that plans for organizing the pending tournament were much like those for basketball, with Districts and Regionals. Circulars sent out by the MHSAA asking about planned participation indicated nearly 500 schools intended to play in the tournament. As in other sports, except basketball, plans were to host separate tournaments for the Upper and Lower Peninsula due to weather conditions experienced above the Mackinac Bridge.

While a number of cities in the past had hosted baseball tournaments where schools from around the state had been invited to participate, the MHSAA had never previously sponsored a statewide tournament. Perhaps the most well-known was one hosted in Battle Creek for about 10 seasons in the 1940s and 1950s.

In April 1971, Districts were announced, with qualifying round play scheduled for May 17-27 and Pre-District contests planned for May 29 that would allow the field of teams to be cut to four for the Districts. A total of 594 teams entered the Lower Peninsula tournament. The Finals for all classes were scheduled for June 19.

“I think you could draw it out of a hat and call a certain team a favorite, and you’d be correct,” said MHSAA Associate Director Vern Norris 45 years ago when discussing the uncharted territory of that first tournament. “There’s just no basis for comparison. I think we can say the teams competing Saturday are the cream of the crop, although in any tourney competition some good teams are eliminated early.”

“Overall, we’ve been very pleased,” he continued. “No. There haven’t been any major problems. The umpiring has been good and the support from the schools excellent. The person who really helped us out was the weatherman.”

All 48 Regional games were played without a hitch. In years past (and in years to come), weather had played havoc with previous tournaments.

Four sites were used for the games. Class A was played at Wyandotte Memorial Field, while Class B was hosted at Battle Creek Central. Class C contests were scheduled at Marshall High School with Class D at Central Michigan University’s Alumni Field in Mount Pleasant. Semifinal games were scheduled for 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., with finals scheduled at 3:30 p.m. at each location.

The Detroit area emerged with three of the four titles, with games played beneath hot and humid weather.  

Jim Saad, recruited to Colorado State to play football, smacked a 355-foot two-run homer to left field in the opening inning of the Finals as Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher blanked Royal Oak Kimball 3-0 before 1,200 fans for the Class A crown. Greg Boos tossed a two-hitter for the Lancers, striking out 10 along the way. It was the first of three Class A baseball titles won by Gallagher and their coach Jim Bresciami, who would lead his teams to 545 wins between 1965 and 1985. The Detroit Catholic League’s First Division East champion, Gallagher finished with a 32-5 record on the year. Right-hander Boos ended the season with an 11-2 mark.

Detroit Lutheran West posted 24 wins against a single defeat, scoring a 4-1 win over Pinconning for the Class B title. A bases-loaded single by Fred Schebor in the fifth inning brought in two runs to break open a 1-1 tie. Bill Lindblom was responsible for West’s other two runs, driving in runners with a single in the second inning and a double in the sixth. Junior Leon Druckenmiller struck out six and scattered six hits for the Leopards for the win. Earlier in the day, John Paloni struck out 18 batters in West’s 3-0 Semifinal win over Wayland.

Hamtramck St. Ladislaus took advantage of a pair of third inning errors, scoring two runs in the team’s 3-0 win over Dearborn Sacred Heart. Tom Crepeau pitched a four-hitter and struck out seven, while Paul Janas led the victors with two singles and a double in the Final. The win avenged a pair of nonleague losses to Sacred Heart during the regular season. Rick Radzinski pitched a two-hitter and drove in three runs in Ladislaus’ 7-1 Semifinal win over Sanford-Meridian.

Managed by 1952 alumnus Jim Powell, Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart rebounded from an early 8-1 deficit in its Semifinal game with Marion for a 16-12 win, gaining a birth in the Class D championship game against Portland St. Patrick. The Irish’s Roger Therman then pitched a four-hitter in a 5-1 win over St. Patrick.

To the north, with its later thaw, the high school baseball season continued to revolve around summer American Legion baseball but also two U.P. high school leagues: the Eastern Upper Peninsula High School Baseball League (EUP) and Western Upper Peninsula High School Baseball League (WUP). In its 14th year of operation, the WUP saw Ironwood post an 11-1 record against six league opponents to earn the 1971 league championship, while Rudyard repeated as champs with a 12-4 season in the nine-team EUP.

Today, the U.P.’s most famous baseball player remains Kevin Tapani, a 1981 graduate of Escanaba, who pitched for 13 years in the Major League. Tapani quarterbacked the Escanaba Eskymos to the MHSAA Class A football title in 1981, yet never threw a pitch for his high school because of the weather.

Forty-five years later, Mother Nature continues to influence baseball in the Upper Peninsula – although over time Upper Peninsula schools began taking part with those from the Lower Peninsula in a statewide MHSAA Tournament. The first U.P. team to make the Semifinals in baseball was Sault Ste. Marie in 1988. 

This season, 21 Upper Peninsula schools sponsored varsity baseball teams, as gradually some have brought back programs long in hibernation – Gladstone, for example, made the Division 3 Semifinals in 2014 after bringing back a baseball program the year before that hadn't played since 1959.

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) Detroit Lutheran West stands together for a team photo; it won the inaugural Class B title. (Middle) Champions of the first MHSAA Tournament, in 1971, included Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher, Hamtramck St. Ladislaus and Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. 

Algonac Diamond Teams Hope Matching Successes Lead to East Lansing

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

May 24, 2023

Kenna Bommarito remembers how many people were in East Lansing a year ago to support her and her Algonac softball teammates at the Division 3 Semifinals.

Bay & ThumbSo, she has an idea of how many people from the town would show up if both the softball and baseball teams were there this time around.

“I think everyone would be,” the junior pitcher said.

There’s a decent possibility that Bommarito’s theory could be tested. The Muskrats softball team is ranked No. 2 in Division 3, and Tuesday night clinched the first Blue Water Area Conference title in program history.

That came one night after the baseball team – ranked No. 1 in Division 3 – also won its first BWAC title. The BWAC was created in 2002, and Algonac was an original member.

“It’s amazing – this town loves it,” said senior baseball player Tyler Schultz. “We’ve got a small community, and everybody is tagging along. I remember last year, a couple of our final postseason games, that was the most people I’ve ever seen at a game. All of the sports here are starting to build up. We have athletes all around the school. I think as time goes on, I think each sport will get better and better.”

Bommarito’s imagined scenario nearly played out a year ago, as both teams made their deepest postseason run.

While the softball team was making its historic run to the Semifinal, the baseball team was making one of its own, advancing to the Quarterfinal for the first time in program history.

Matthew Rix slides into home as a throw comes in.The baseball team’s movement toward this started with the 2017 and 2018 seasons, when the Muskrats won back-to-back District titles.

“We had a couple DI (college) players, and when you have those players come through, it generates excitement through the youth,” said Algonac baseball coach Scott Thaler, who took over the program in 2017. “It’s been a trickle-down effect from that initial first two years. That really set the bar. We’ve had some really good baseball players come through, and I have a great staff.”

Thaler had stressed back then that he wanted to build a program at Algonac and not have it be a flash in the pan. That certainly looks like it’s happening, and not just because his Muskrats are winning and sitting atop the state rankings.

Algonac – which has fewer than 500 students in the entire school – has junior varsity and freshman baseball teams. Thaler also said there are 25 eighth graders coming into the program next year.

“I think that when I was smaller in little league, we didn’t really have that where we went out on the field with the varsity players,” said junior pitcher Josh Kasner. “Now, that’s gotten a lot better. A lot of the smaller kids we see around town, they know who we are and about (the program).”

Of course, talent wasn’t enough to get there. Thaler needed to instill belief in his team in order to help the younger generation see what was possible.

“I was a (football assistant) coach under Scott Barnhart, and one of the things we preached to the kids back then is ‘To believe in the things you haven’t seen before,’” Thaler said. “That’s the mantra we brought to them last year, ‘Why not us?’ Just because it hasn’t happened before here doesn’t mean you can’t believe in that. We had to get them to believe.”

The Quarterfinal run provided proof beyond the belief for the Muskrats, and then the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association added to it all, naming Algonac the preseason No. 1 team in Division 3.

Luckily for Thaler, his team took it in stride.

The Muskrats huddle up in the baseball outfield.“I mean, it was a great feeling, but part of me had some doubts,” Schultz said “We’ve got some younger kids on the team, and I thought that maybe they might look at that and might get complacent, but me and some of the other seniors have done a good job of keeping all of these guys looking forward. We’ve still got one goal, and that’s to finish (with a Finals title).”

While the softball team didn’t enter the season with a No. 1 ranking, the expectations were certainly there, as was a new target on its back.

But bigger than both was motivation following a walk-off loss to Millington in the Semifinal.

“I think it just shows us that in those big games with those types of teams, you can never say never,” said first-year softball coach Natalie Heim, who was an assistant on last year’s team. “You really have to bear down. That Millington team that beat us, they fought hard. But I definitely think it fuels us more to get back.”

The softball program’s rise may have seemed more sudden to those on the outside, but senior Ella Stephenson said it had been bubbling for a while.

“My sophomore year, we had some talent for sure,” she said. “We had a really good season, but not as good as junior and senior year. The class above me was really talented. But they kind of turned the program around in my eighth-grade year, and it kind of kept building from there.”

During Stephenson’s sophomore season, the Muskrats lost a tough District game against Richmond, which went on to win the Division 3 Finals title. Not only are the Blue Devils a common early postseason opponent for the Muskrats, they’re also a conference rival. As is Almont. And Croswell-Lexington. And … It’s a brutal conference.

The Algonac softball team stands together for a team photo.So, much like the baseball team, even during the softball team’s historic 2022 season, winning the conference this spring proved to be tougher than making a deep postseason run.

That made Tuesday night’s sweep of North Branch to clinch the BWAC that much sweeter.

“Honestly, it’s a rush of just happiness,” Bommarito said. “We’re all so excited and just can’t believe we did it. We just played game-by-game today, and really took it one pitch, one out at a time.”

Not only has the BWAC prepared the Muskrats for the possibility of another deep postseason run, it helped keep them focused throughout the season.

“I think a lot of teams don’t have that luxury of facing the best competition during the season,” Heim said. “I think it keeps (the Muskrats) not looking too far ahead. We try to have that approach of one game at a time, one inning at a time, one pitch at a time. It helps with having goals that are a little tougher to achieve. Winning our league, it’s tough. It’s not an easy feat. Especially after last year’s success, it would have been easy to look ahead.”

Now, with league titles secured, both teams can focus on their ultimate goals and the postseason that is directly in front of them.

All with the hope that their similarities – on top of the league titles, both teams are 29-2 as of Wednesday, and both have a University of Michigan-bound player (Kasner and Stephenson) – continue through the third weekend of June with matching trips to East Lansing.

“That’d be unreal. That would be so cool,” Stephenson said. “We all have really good friendships on the baseball and softball teams. Our records are identical. We both won our conference. It’s just really cool. I’m really happy for their success, and ours, too.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Algonac pitcher Kenna Bommarito makes her move toward the plate during last season’s Division 3 Semifinal against Millington. (2) Matthew Rix slides into home as a throw comes in. (3) The Muskrats huddle up in the baseball outfield. (4) The Algonac softball team stands together for a team photo. (Baseball photos and softball team photo courtesy of the Algonac athletic department.)