Big Bats Drive Portage Northern to 1st Title

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

June 15, 2019

EAST LANSING – Portage Northern has made a habit of getting on top of teams early this season.

There’s no secret to that success. The Huskies are just that good at the plate.

“We can all hit,” senior outfielder Tyler Helgeson said. “This is a great lineup, this is a great team, because if one guy is having an off day, you know that the whole team has your back.”

Pretty much everyone in the lineup had a good day Saturday as the Huskies pounded out 12 hits on their way to a 10-4 victory against Rockford in the MHSAA Division 1 Baseball Final at McLane Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University. The title is the first in Northern baseball history.

“It feels surreal – it hasn’t really hit me yet,” Hegelson said. “This is what we’ve all been working toward. This has been our goal for four years now, and to finally accomplish it, it’s very special.”

Saturday’s win was Northern’s 24th over its final 25 games of the season, with its only loss coming against Division 2 finalist Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in the final game of the regular season. 

“This group of kids is just phenomenal,” Northern coach Chris Andrews said. “They’ve been a selfless team, they’ve worked like crazy – we do mental conditioning, we practice then they do weight training twice a week, and these guys never complain. They put in all the work, and they play for each other. It’s just awesome.”

It was the second trip to the Finals for the Huskies (39-7), who had finished runner-up in 2015. Several of those players, as well as other alumni, were on hand to watch Andrews lift the trophy for the first time.

“It feels amazing,” senior first baseman Cam French said. “All of us seniors, we came in with a big goal, and we worked our butts off every day. Bringing home the first state title ever definitely feels good, and I feel like everyone knows that we earned it, so I’m happy.”

French and Helgeson had the biggest hits for the Huskies, as French drove in two runs during a four-run first inning and Helgeson hit a three-run home run over the wall in right field to highlight a five-run fifth.

They each had three hits on the day, as did Zach Quinn. Nolan McCarthy, Greg Lapetina (RBI) and Gannon Andrews (two RBI) each added one hit, while Parker Brey and Malcom Gaynor each added an RBI.

A balanced lineup has been key for the Huskies all season, as seven players hit above .380 for the year, and that doesn’t include the leadoff hitter Helgeson, who hit .355 with 30 stolen bases and will play at Eastern Michigan University next year. 

With four Rockford errors sprinkled in, it was more than enough for Northern to distance itself.

“They hit the ball well, and they put the bat on the ball,” Rockford coach Matt Vriesenga said. “We didn’t make a couple plays, and really when you’re playing against a team like Portage Northern, you have to make plays. They’ve hit the ball all year long. They’re a great team. If we make a couple of those plays, maybe it’s a one-run, two-run game, but they deserved to win.”

Xander Morris was the beneficiary of that run support, picking up the pitching win in a complete-game effort. The sophomore struck out four while allowing seven hits and one earned run.

“Xander Morris, he’s a sophomore, unflappable,” Chris Andrews said. “The kid just throws strikes. He’s got a wipeout curveball, he can throw it over for a strike. He’s an amazing kid. He’s planning on being a Navy SEAL, and with that effort, I wouldn’t doubt it.”

Rockford (28-10) scored two of its runs in the third inning to make the score 5-2 at the time, but never was able to get closer. A solo home run by Zach Schamp in the fifth inning gave the Rams some late life, and they threatened again in the sixth only to have that rally cut short by a Brey throw to the plate from right field to prevent a run and end the inning. 

“There’s no quit in them – they battled and they keep battling until the end,” Vriesenga said. “You know they’re not going to take an at-bat off. That’s what we’ve talked about; you might go 0-for-2 with two strikeouts, and the next time up you hit a triple, but you have to keep your head up and you have to stay in the game. A kid like Zach Schamp, to come up in his third at-bat and hit a home run – super proud of him and the rest of the guys.”

Grant Martin led Rockford with two hits, while Joe Kelley, Cody Sterkenburg (RBI), Isaac Toole and Owen Cairns each had one.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Portage Northern's Tyler Helgeson (7), Gannon Andrews (2), Zach Quinn (27) and Malcolm Gaynor celebrate during Saturday's Division 1 Final. (Middle) Andrews and a Rockford runner race to the plate.

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.)