Centreville Aiming to Take Next Step

By Wes Morgan
Special for MHSAA.com

April 12, 2016

The sleepy village of Centreville was even quieter last June 13 when seemingly every resident trekked to East Lansing to watch the Bulldogs’ varsity baseball team take on Muskegon Catholic Central in the MHSAA Division 4 championship game.

“When we were at Michigan State last year, what’s funny is that, we’re in a small town, but the whole small town was at Michigan State,” Centreville coach Mike Webster said. “If you were in Centreville that day, the bank could have been robbed; the grocery store could have been robbed. We had the directors of the MHSAA come up to us and tell us we had the biggest crowd out of anybody — Division 1, 2, 3 or 4 schools.

“That lets you know that this town was waiting for something like that. The support is there and my phone has been off the hook since that day last year. I know we’ll have that fan support and school support. It makes it that much more fun.”

It was a historic run for the Bulldogs last spring, one that included a 29-2 record, a Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph East championship, the program’s first Regional crown and a spot in the penultimate game. The Bulldogs fell to MCC by a score of 10-8 to finish as Division 4 runner-up.

Now there’s only one goal: Win it all.

In order to meet that expectation, the preseason No. 2-ranked team in D4 will have to rely heavily on the right arm of senior pitcher Michael Kool, who had a remarkable 0.97 ERA in 2015. The recent Calvin College commit said, “I just got to trust my stuff like I did last year.”

That’s even easier to do with the gloves supporting him.

“I have to trust my defense behind me,” he added. “I wouldn’t have a below 1.00 ERA without the defensive players behind me.”

Helping Kool pick up the slack on the mound this season will be junior Coletin Gascho, who posted a very impressive 1.57 ERA as the team’s third pitcher in 2015. Senior Jake Milliman will provide depth on the mound for the Bulldogs, as will sophomore Andrew Stevens.

The Bulldogs’ offense, which posted a .312 team batting average and a .433 on-base percentage in 2015, brings back six of its top seven hitters from a year ago. Seniors Jalen Brown and Nick Kelley are among those returners looking to improve upon an offense that didn’t produce great power numbers last year but was still effective from top to bottom.

Brown, who went on a tear during the playoffs, finished 2015 with a .430 batting average.

Kelley, a rare strikeout victim in 2015, posted an eye-opening .560 on-base percentage during the regular season to go along with a strong .396 batting average. Kool also will look to provide some offense in 2016 just as he did in 2015, when he led the team in home runs (two).

“I think we’re all hungry to get back to the state championship and finish the job this time,” Kool said.

Centreville returns almost all of its key defenders to this year’s roster. Kelley, who along with Kool will make up one of the most successful and experienced batteries around the state, will anchor the defense from behind the plate.

Sophomore centerfielder Nick Webber is a major asset with a year of experience under his belt.  Junior shortstop Brady Reynolds is just as invaluable.

“He’s (Reynolds) a very energetic kid, a very quick kid, and he’s a natural baseball player,” Brown said in describing why his teammate was the best defender on the Bulldogs’ roster.

This veteran group knows, however, this spring will be quite different being chased instead of being the pursuant.  

“We have always had a very competitive conference,” Webster said. “With the returning players we will be having, we expect teams to not overlook us.”

“All last season, our little quote on the team was play every game like it’s a District championship game,” Kelley explained. “This year it’s going to be play every game like it’s a state title game.”

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Centreville's baseball team celebrates last season's Division 4 Semifinal win at Michigan State University. (Middle) Michael Kool unloads a pitch on the way to earning the 2-1 victory over Rudyard.

Algonac Diamond Teams Hope Matching Successes Lead to East Lansing

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)