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.)

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.)