Balanced, Gritty Lamphere Back Among Baseball's Best

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

May 27, 2021

Two walk-off home runs defined the success of the Madison Heights Lamphere baseball team’s regular-season championship run this spring.

The next two games will determine the success of the Rams’ postseason.

Lamphere – 22-3 and ranked No. 7 in Division 2 this week – is in the midst of one of the program’s best seasons, as the Rams captured the Macomb Area Conference Gold title outright posting a 13-2 mark. On May 19, Lamphere faced St. Clair Shores Lakeview in the last division game of the season. If Lakeview had won, it would have created a shared title with Lamphere (the teams also shared in 2019). But with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, Nick Krstich, a junior catcher-third baseman, hit the first pitch he saw for a home run to give Lamphere a 4-3 victory and the outright championship.

“It was probably the greatest moment in my baseball life, and I’ve been playing since I was 8 (years old),” Krstich said. “It took me a few steps to realize it was out. All game they were starting me off with a curveball. They brought in a new guy. He threw a fastball, and it was in my happy zone. As I came around third, all the guys were waiting for me and they all jumped on me as I crossed the plate.”

Rewind another month to April 23, shortly before the start of the league season, when Lamphere played traditional power Detroit Country Day. In a wild affair, junior Aiden McGinnis, a spot starting pitcher who works mainly in relief, came to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning with the score tied at 13-13. McGinnis sent an 0-1 pitch over the left field fence for a 14-13 victory.

“That got us going in the right direction,” Lamphere coach Adam Wooley said. “That was cool. It showed we could play with anybody.”

Wooley is in his 20th season as the program’s head varsity coach and his teams, for the most part, have been competitive. His best were headed by players like Greg Fettes, Ryan Horvath and others a decade ago. In 2010, Lamphere reached the MHSAA Division 2 Regional Finals before losing to eventual champion Dearborn Divine Child. The next season expectations were greater with the return of Fettes and Horvath, but Lamphere lost to Country Day in District play.

“We had seven players who went on to play in college from those teams,” Wooley said. “We have five on this team. We won Districts in 2012 and 2014, and again in 2019. It probably sounds worn out, but I thought we’d be good this year. We had eight starters back (from two years ago) and they had had success. They were anticipating getting back together.

“I’m a lot different coach than I was 10 years ago. I was like a Kirk Gibson then, intense. Now I’m more like a Miguel Cabrera, more laid back.”

Wooley has 16 on his varsity roster, including nine seniors. There are no superstars – just a bunch of good players who pull for each other and have played a lot of baseball together over the years.

Wooley said he and his program hit a downturn for a few years following the 2014 season. Coaching had become a drudgery, not something Wooley looked forward to after teaching class (at Lamphere). Simply put, he got stale.

“I questioned myself,” he said. “It was getting to the point where I was getting frustrated. Then in 2017, I went to an aspiring principal program, as part of my wanting to become an administrator. I had a chance to look at myself. It made me look at my core values. Core values? What are they? I needed to change.”

Wooley redefined his role as a coach. He built his new approach on what he calls the three pillars of his program – trust, commitment and grit.

“The mantra is family,” he said. “We give up so much to be a part of this. You have to understand that we are working toward the same goal. That grit piece? I’m from Madison Heights. No one has succeeded in this town without hard work.”

After last season was cancelled due to COVID-19, Wooley knew there would be a transition period so he intentionally started the season late (April 9) to give his players time to get back to basics. And he’s convinced that extra time spent practicing paid off.

Lamphere’s strengths are hitting, one through nine in the order, and pitching. The players are patient at the plate, and they’re not afraid to fail.

Lamphere baseballOne of Lamphere’s top players is Jake Malak, a pitcher-catcher-outfielder, who will play at St. Clair Community College next season. Malak is batting over .400 and is 4-0 as the team’s No. 2 starter.

The third starter is Dylan Chargo, who’s 3-0 with an ERA below 2.50. He’s batting .350 with 10 extra-base hits.

Defensively, Lamphere makes the routine plays. K.J. Whitman covers a lot of ground in center field, and shortstop Noah Hurst earned the nickname “dirtball” because he’s always diving for ground balls and dirtying his uniform.

And Wooley has the luxury of rotating three catchers on a weekly basis – Chargo, Malak and Krstich.

Malak is one of the leaders and, like Krstich, was a starter on the football team. Malak comes from a family of catchers. His father, Ricky Malak, was a catcher at Madison High. His grandfather, Ronald Malak, also caught and his cousin Billy Malak was a catcher-third baseman on the Madison Heights Bishop Foley teams that claimed a Finals three-peat with Division 3 titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

“I love catching,” Jake Malak said. “I like being the leader on the field. I honestly love everything about it. You’re always doing something.”

To stay on top of his game during the cancelled 2020 season, Malak continued to do “something.” He worked with his father one-on-one on catching drills and hitting. Malak also joined a health club nearby to maintain his conditioning.

On Tuesday, Lamphere will play Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood in a Division 2 District opener at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. Cranbrook handed Lamphere its only nonconference loss, 9-4. The winner will play Country Day on June 5 in a District Semifinal. Should Lamphere win, the Rams will likely play the host team, top-ranked St. Mary’s, for the championship that same afternoon.

It’s a daunting task but one the Rams have been preparing for since the start of the season. And should they reach the District Final and play St. Mary’s which, by virtue of its title in 2019, is the reigning Division 2 champion, Lamphere would be a decided underdog.

So be it.

“Hey, it’s baseball,” Krstich said. “Anything can happen.”

Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Aiden McGinnis (22) and his Lamphere teammates have had plenty to smile about this spring. (Middle) KJ Whitman makes his move toward the plate Friday against Madison Heights Bishop Foley. (Photos courtesy of Allison Minowa and the Lamphere baseball program.)

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.)