Clutch Seniors Lead Hackett Title Pursuit
By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com
May 21, 2018
KALAMAZOO — A couple of summers ago, Joe Carr caught his last baseball game.
Or so he thought.
The Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep senior was called to action behind the plate during his team’s 12-1 victory against Brown City on May 5, making Carr the perfect utility player for coach Jesse Brown’s Irish.
Over the past two years, Carr has played all nine positions.
Carr is one of just four seniors winding up varsity careers as the team prepares for MHSAA District play next week. The Irish are 26-3 so far this season and ranked No. 1 in Division 4.
Carr actually had to borrow teammate Garrett Warner’s catcher’s equipment to complete the cycle.
The last time Carr had caught was the summer of his freshman year with the HBF Maroons travel team.
“It was the last game of the season, and I finished the game and I turned to my dad and said I’m never catching again,” Carr recalled.
“And then I did. I do enjoy catching. It’s a very fun and very demanding position. I do like that. It’s just that every weekend we have three games and (I would be) catching two of the three games.”
Carr played seven positions last year then added first base and catcher this spring.
‘He kind of struggled with that (utility) role for a little bit from the point that he’s a shortstop by trade, and that’s the position he wants to play,” Brown said. “But he sacrificed it for the team.
“He finished off his true utility mentality. He was (an) all-district, all-region utility player last year and brings a lot of leadership. He’s one of those kids who comes up big in clutch situations.”
More clutch performers
The shortstop position was taken by current senior Cooper Smith two years ago when his family moved to town from the Detroit area after his father, Jay Smith, was hired by Kalamazoo College.
“Cooper is a fiery kid who is very, very competitive,” Brown said. “He’s one of the hardest working kids that I’ve had in my program in the last 13 years. He comes every day to work hard. He’s always getting in extra cuts, extra at-bats, extra ground balls.”
Although he can pitch and play second base, Smith feels at home at shortstop.
“There’s a lot of action and you’re involved in a lot of plays,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to handle some of the pressure and adversity that comes with it.”
Senior Brenden Warner is one of seven players who also competed for the Brown-coached Kalamazoo United football team, a co-op with Kalamazoo Christian in the fall.
For three years, Warner was the team’s punter — he had a broken arm during his freshman football season.
During his four-year baseball career, the outfielder has made just two errors.
“One error was this year when he got caught in the sun on a line drive that hit off the palm of his glove and he dropped it out in left, but he actually threw the guy out at second base,” Brown said.
“So yes, it was an error at first but the runner actually got thrown out at second so he got a put-out off it.”
Warner, a three-time baseball all-stater, also had an error as a sophomore.
He could not decide which sport he wanted to play in college, so when Division III Trine University offered a chance to play both, he grabbed it.
“Me not being active in college would make me feel bad, or sad, not to be doing anything,” he said. “I want to maintain being busy all the time with both academics and sports.”
Warner also leads the baseball team in hitting with a .568 average this season, and has hit .438 for his career.
He credits his hitting prowess with “not thinking about it or letting things get to your head,” he said. “Once I get out, I just let it go. Also, training helps a lot.”
Keaton Ashby, the fourth senior, was also a first-team all-stater last year.
“Keaton is a very passionate baseball player,” Brown said. “He gets the team fired up. When we need that extra motivation, sometimes they get sick of hearing it from Coach Brown and they have to lean on a player for that, and that player is Keaton Ashby.
“He’s batted in the 4-spot his entire career, and his batting average is just over .400 this year and about .390 career. He drives in runs for us, and he’s our leading RBI-getter the last three years.”
Ashby knew baseball was definitely in his future as a young seventh grader when he played on an offseason team with members of the varsity and hit opposing pitchers throwing in the mid-80s.
Ashby usually pitches or plays first base and drove in the winning run on a line drive to left field in the team’s walk-off win against Grand Rapids West Catholic on April 21 at Fifth Third Ballpark.
“I will never forget that,” he said. “It’s a minor league field and many of those guys started out my age on that field.
“Knowing I was on the same field as they were, it was just awesome.”
Holding on to the top spot
In his 13 years as the Irish head coach, Brown has compiled a 285-109 record. Last season Hackett won its District before falling in a Regional Semifinal to St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic.
“This group has been at the top before,” he said. “We were at the top last year for about three weeks at the beginning of the season and then finished the season at No. 3 in the rankings.
“This group of seniors and a few juniors are very familiar with what it means to be on the Hackett baseball team. They understand they’re going to get everybody’s best every time we play them. It definitely does raise the bar, but this group has been very humble and willing to accept that.”
Brown said this team’s strength is hitting and defense, but “we don’t have a defined No. 1 pitcher.
“The last several years we had Adam Wheaton (now at Trine) who was a very clear cut ‘This is the guy we’re going to roll out in key situations.’ We don’t have that this year.”
Brown said it has been fun watching the young guys step up, including three freshmen varsity starters in Stephen Kwapis at third base, Steven Widger in right field and Sam Shea, a left-handed pitcher who had the walkoff game-winning hit against Flint Powers Catholic in the other game at Fifth Third Ballpark last month.
Sophomore Garrett Warner has caught every inning this season except Carr’s five behind the plate.
Two players, juniors Heath Baldwin and Eric Wenzel, also run track.
“Eric’s been just huge for us in the top of our lineup and playing center field,” Brown said. “Heath has been at the top of the rotation for pitching.”
The two other juniors, Andrew Widger and Andrew Bridenstine also have contributed.
“Andrew Widger has been our most efficient pitcher,” Brown said. “He’s been coming in in relief and closing out some games for us in big situations.
“Andrew Bridenstine has been key for us. He’s come up with some big hits for us and plays first base when Keaton pitches for us.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Kalamazoo Hackett’s Brendan Warner powers through a pitch against Schoolcraft during an April doubleheader. (Middle) Clockwise, from top left: Keaton Ashby, Joe Carr, Cooper Smith and Warner. (Below) Hackett coach Jesse Brown. (Action shot courtesy of JoeInsider.com; head shots by Pam Shebest.)
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.
So, 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.
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.
“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.
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 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.)