After 2021 Semifinal Trip, Huron Building Toward Another Big Finish

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

May 10, 2022

NEW BOSTON – Phil Yancey learned an important lesson while coaching baseball to teenagers in the Dominican Republic – a lesson that he uses today with his players at New Boston Huron.

“The kids there play hard, from the warm-ups right through the last play of a game,” he said. “They give 100 percent. For many of them, it’s there only way out of poverty. Baseball is their ticket off the island.”

Yancey stresses to his players now to play hard every single minute they are on the field.

“Field that ground ball like it’s your last ground ball,” he tells them. “Go up to the plate like it’s your last at-bat.”

Yancey coached five seasons in the Dominican before becoming the varsity baseball coach at Huron High School in southern Wayne County seven years ago. He’s developed a rock-solid program at Huron, one that is currently ranked among top teams in the state and looks to be built for a deep tournament run. 

Huron went 26-8 in 2021, reaching the state rankings for the first time in school history. The Chiefs won Division 2 District and Regional titles and made the Semifinals before bowing out to eventual champion Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. That club had 10 seniors, but Yancey saw potential for big things this season.

“It was nice coming into the season with guys to build around, but we found some really talented players this year too,” he said. “We are playing pretty well right now.”

The Chiefs are off to a 17-2 start. The losses came to Grosse Ile in an early-season game and to Livonia Stevenson in an 8-7 slugfest. The Chiefs have a key matchup with Riverview this week, and a win would go a long way toward the team repeating as Huron League champion. 

The team is built with a solid core of seniors including shortstop-pitcher Cole Grunwald and centerfielder Matt Williams, plus juniors like Rory Callahan, Michigan State University commit-Gavin Moczydlowski and sophomore Micah Smith – who is quickly gaining the interest of multiple colleges.

Moczydlowski is the ace of the pitching staff and one of the top hitters on the team. He committed to MSU in the fall after a great season last year. 

“He throws 90-92,” Yancey said. “He’s a really good pitcher, doesn’t walk many, and hitters have a tough time with him.”

New Boston Huron baseballMoczydlowski would have been on the varsity as a freshman, but the season was canceled because of COVID-19. As a sophomore he broke a bone in his elbow during basketball season, and no one knew it until after he pitched – and won – the baseball season opener. He ended up playing first base all season due to the arm injury. This year he’s in the rotation, and Yancey considers him the ace.

“It like an addition to the team because he didn’t pitch last year,” Yancey said. “We like the combination of him starting and Micah Smith closing.”

Smith has been a pleasant surprise. He’s another hard-throwing righthander. Yancey wasn’t even counting on him when the season started, but he’s throwing in the 90s and has more than proven himself. Oakland University and the University of Pittsburgh have been in regular contact with Yancey about the sophomore, who has a 1.80 ERA with 34 strikeouts among the 84 batters he’s faced.

“He’s a diamond in the rough,” Yancey said.

Grunwald is 4-0 with an ERA under 1.00. Grunwald pitched a perfect game in the Regional Final last season and hit for the cycle in the Quarterfinal. He’s hitting almost .400 this season. 

Junior Lucas Coll is another solid piece of the rotation.

“We definitely have a better, deeper pitching staff than last year,” Yancey said. “It’s hard to win deep in the tournament with one guy or two. We have five. We are setting up nicely. It’s like we added a whole new pitching staff to our team since last year. 

“It’s a good problem to have.”

Catcher Connor Grant is hitting .468 with three doubles in his first season behind the plate. Ashton Warren is hitting over .500 in limited action, and Callahan has raised his average more than 100 points over last year and is batting .377.

Yancey says Williams might be the fastest guy in centerfield in the state. 

“When other teams look back at why we beat them, inevitably the answer is Matt Williams,” Yancey said. “He can dominate games.”

Yancey has coached on and off for about 20 years, including time as an assistant softball coach at Huron when his daughter was an all-state player. His time in the Dominican Republic was an eye-opener.

“The kids play hard, but they play loose,” he said. “They know they are out there to have fun. That’s one thing I tell my kids at Huron – play to have fun – but never take a play off. We’ve had very good results that way.”

New Boston Huron will start the MHSAA Tournament run with Carleton Airport. After that, Yancey has the path to Michigan State and the Finals well-mapped out. Now, the Chiefs must go out and perform.

“We’ve built a program,” he said. “It’s not a varsity team, junior varsity team and freshman team. It’s a program. We all wear the same uniforms. Every guy, from the nine guys on the field to the guys on the bench or guys on the JV team … they are all competing for spots. Everyone knows their number could be called at any time.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Huron’s Gavin Moczydlowski drives a pitch while his teammates look on during a game at Chelsea. (Middle) The Chiefs’ Cole Grunwald pulls into third base during a game against Trenton. (Photos by Tom Hawley/Monroe News.)

Algonac Diamond Teams Hope Matching Successes Lead to East Lansing

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

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.)