Cardinal Mooney Confidently Building on Newfound Success

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

April 20, 2021

Rocco Comito could see signs of good things to come during his freshman season on the Marine City Cardinal Mooney baseball team. 

He just didn’t know how good.

“I didn’t see this at all,” said Comito, now a senior. “I thought we were going to be good eventually, but not where we’re at now.”

Comito and his teammates won the school’s first Regional title since 1997 during the 2019 season, and after the 2020 season was cancelled, they’ve come back looking for more. Mooney is the preseason No. 2 team in the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Division 4 rankings, and has started 5-1.

“Honestly, it feels amazing,” said Comito, who was an all-state selection at catcher in 2019. “Just to be part of it all.”

Comito and classmates Anthony DiGiuseppe and Tommy Gill, who are the lone seniors on this year’s team, did have some success immediately, as Mooney won a District title in 2018. That was the school’s first since 2010, though, and when Mike Rice had taken over the program before the 2017 season, the Cardinals were struggling to put enough players on the field let alone make any type of postseason run. 

Eight players came to Rice’s first tryout, forcing him to find athletes roaming the small Catholic school’s hallways to fill out a roster.

“It was an eye opener,” said Rice, a 1994 graduate of Harper Woods Notre Dame, who himself played in the Detroit Catholic League. “Personally, for me, I love the teaching part. A kid came up to me and said, ‘How do I bunt?’ in the first practice. I didn’t get mad; I actually liked it. I like teaching baseball.”

Marine City Cardinal Mooney baseballNow, Rice has no trouble filling the roster. This season’s tryout featured 36 players, and for the second consecutive season, Mooney has been able to field a junior varsity team. 

“I’m so proud of it,” Rice said. “I moved them into the upper division in the JV this year. We have a good coach there that kind of treats it as a developmental, minor league program. It’s just about getting better. That way, they’re ready when they come up.

“It’s a quote-unquote program now. Coach (Michael) Hunt runs his practices the same way I run mine. When they come up to my team, it’s the exact same thing.”

As the program has grown, so has the depth of talent on the roster. Rice said this year’s team is the deepest he’s had.

“I have about eight pitchers now on this team,” he said. “We’re fully loaded up as far as position players go. We’re a more complete team from top to bottom, including the bench. We have, in my opinion, four top-notch starting pitchers, not including relievers.”

Gill struck out 22 batters over his first two starts of the season and carried a no-hitter through 6 2/3 innings of the opener against Lutheran Northwest. Nathan Super no-hit Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes on Mooney’s second day of action, and Blake Lutzky struck out six over 2 1/3 innings in his first appearance. 

The Cardinals have also shown off their depth in the lineup, with everyone from leadoff hitter DiGiuseppe – who is 5-for-5 at the plate to start the year – to junior Nick Garcia – a home run from the nine hole – getting in on the act. Comito has a pair of hits in each of the Cardinals’ past two games, while sophomore Trent Rice (six hits), junior Tom Rice (five RBIs) and sophomore Ryan Trombley (five RBI) also have had strong starts to the year. 

“We have a super strong team of athletic guys this year,” DiGiuseppe said. “We have the most athletes on this team than all the other teams I’ve been on at Mooney. Everybody knows their role, and it’s cool to have those guys on the bench we know can come in and do their job.”

Marine City Cardinal Mooney baseballGill added that the depth of the team gives the players confidence each time they step onto the field. 

“I think confidence is key,” Gill said. “If you’re confident, you can almost beat anyone.”

Mike Rice said the growth of the program is all about the players on the field. Gill, though, said his coach should be taking a lot more of the credit.

“He’s a great coach,’ Gill said. “His attention to detail is very, very good. It helps us all get better. He’ll see a little thing that’s wrong and corrects it, something that most people wouldn’t notice. He sees the really fine details that make you a great player.”

The recent success of the program has also caused a growth in confidence among the players. The 2019 Regional title was the second in school history, and their Super Regional defeat came against eventual Division 4 champion Petersburg Summerfield, which gave the Cardinals an up-close and personal look at what an MHSAA championship team looks like. 

“They looked like a college team,” Gill said. “They looked like a (Division II) college team.”

The success also makes the Cardinals believe that their lofty ranking is justified, and rather than ignoring it, they’re embracing it. 

“It’s different, but we love it,” Rice said. “Our kids have a good confidence, but not an arrogance. I want the target. I want these kids to understand that all of us worked our butts off to get here. People say rankings don’t mean anything, but for me, I think they do. I think it’s helped build a little bit of confidence. The expectations are definitely different. It feels different, and I think it’s helped the boys say that, ‘Hey, we’re not this small school in Marine City that nobody knows.’”

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) Marine City Cardinal Mooney pitcher Tommy Gill makes his move toward the plate during a game this spring. (Middle) Anthony DiGiuseppe gets his lead off second base during a 2019 game. (Below) The 2019 team celebrates its Regional championship. (Photos courtesy of the Cardinal Mooney baseball program.)

No Runs, No Hits: East Jordan Aces Toss 4 Straight Shutouts, 3 Straight No-Hitters

By Tom Spencer
Special for

May 17, 2024

Playing shortstop this year for East Jordan High School admittedly has become rather boring at times.

Northern Lower PeninsulaThere hasn’t been a whole lot of action at what’s usually the busiest spot in the infield — no matter who is playing it.

Junior Eli Burns knows that better than anyone. He is the Red Devils’ regular shortstop. He also pitches.

Ryder Malpass knows what it’s like to play short this season as well – he’s normally in the spot when Burns is on the mound.

But he also has a feel for how little the shortstop does regularly for the Division 4 No. 16 Red Devils from his usual spot at catcher – receiving behind the plate for a pitching staff averaging almost two strikeouts per inning. 

Just recently, East Jordan put together three straight no-hitters and four straight shutouts.

“It’s good,” Burns said of playing short. “When you have confidence with your pitchers you don’t have to worry about the ball being hit to you that much.”

Ryder Malpass keeps an eye on a runner before making his move toward the plate. Malpass, a junior, started the shoutout string himself with a 4-0 win over Bellaire last week, when he earned the win throwing 5 1/3 innings with seven strikeouts while going 2 for 3 at the plate with a double and RBI. Junior Korbyn Russell closed out the game.

Then Burns started the no-hitter run in the second game that night with Bellaire, a 6-0 Red Devils win. Burns had 10 strikeouts and just a single walk allowed. He also tripled in the game.

This week the no-hitter string continued with 1-0 and 2-0 wins over Boyne City. Russell and senior Lucas Stone threw the Red Devils’ third and fourth no-hitters of the season.

Stone threw a perfect game across six innings. He struck out 12 batters on just 70 pitches and also went 2 for 3 with an RBI against the Ramblers. Russell earned the 1-0 win over Boyne City with 5 1/3 no-hit innings behind 11 strikeouts and with just a lone walk allowed. Stone followed Russell to pick up the save for the Red Devils, now 13-9-1 overall on the season and 6-4 in Lake Michigan Conference play.  

Russell is 6-2 on the season with two saves. Going into Thursday’s game with Charlevoix, he had struck out 92 batters over 42 innings while compiling a 0.86 ERA. Stone is 5-2. Before suffering his second loss of the season to the Rayders, his ERA was 1.17 and he had fanned 38 in 36 innings of work. Burns has racked up 17 strikeouts so far in just over 14 innings.

“It’s pretty special to be a part of something not many teams can do,” Russell said. “We have a special group of pitchers to get the job done.”

Stone credits the Red Devils’ defensive play for the pitching staff’s success.

“Our defense has helped the pitching a lot because they don’t make a lot of errors,” Stone said.  “It makes it a lot easier when you know they are going to make plays behind you.”

Korbyn Russell prepares to unload a pitch.East Jordan came into this week beginning to approach the state records for consecutive shutout innings and games. That ended yesterday in twin bill losses to Division 3 No. 11 Charlevoix. But the Red Devils still can chase the national record of nine no-hit games in a season. (No official record is kept for no-hitters by a Michigan high school team in a season.)

There is also no known record of any East Jordan team racking up three no-hitter wins in a row.

“I don’t think there’s been any stretch with three no-hitters in a row, so that is pretty special,” noted East Jordan coach Adam Grybauskas. “We’re kind of picking up where things were last year and trying to build on last year’s success and make it even better this year.”

The Red Devils captured a Division 4 District championship in 2023 and then a 9-6 Regional Semifinal win over Gaylord St. Mary. The season came to an end in the Regional Final with a 2-0 loss to Painsdale Jeffers.

Russel, Stones and Burns were on the pitching staff last year as East Jordan made that run. The Red Devils will host the District tournament this year as familiar opponents Bellaire, Central Lake and Ellsworth will vie to stop East Jordan’s attempt at repeating as champion. The doubleheader loss to undefeated Charlevoix ended the Red Devils’ hopes of sharing the LMC title with the Rayders.

“I think we’ve played a little bit better competition this year,’ Grybauskas said.  “Our focus this year is taking each doubleheader at a time, and try to get better each week.

“It’s really been game by game and week to week,” he continued. “You’re always looking to do better than last year so obviously that will be something we’ll talk about in the future.”

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) East Jordan’s Lucas Stone winds up during a game. (Middle) Ryder Malpass keeps an eye on a runner before making his move toward the plate. (Below) Korbyn Russell prepares to unload a pitch. (Photos courtesy of the East Jordan athletic department.)