Cool, Calm Contenders Move On in D1

June 16, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Wildly effective, and his record is deceptive.

Both phrases accurately described Warren DeLaSalle sophomore Nino Puckett as he pitched – and won – the biggest game of his life Thursday.

Puckett entered the Division 1 Semifinal against Traverse City West with more losses than wins this spring – and then put together a pitching line that included seven walks but only two hits as the Pilots advanced with a 3-1 win over the Titans.

In fact, Puckett had just two wins entering the postseason before doubling that total with victories in the District and Regional.

But all of this requires some additional perspective – all five of Puckett’s losses came in Detroit Catholic League play, as his team finished only fourth in the Central division while playing a combined nine games against either top-ranked Birmingham Brother Rice or reigning Division 2 champion Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. And he and his teammates certainly benefited from the tough competition.

“We went through our growing pains early on. A great league like we play in, it puts us in a position for games like today to not be able to shy away from the moment,” said DeLaSalle coach Matt Cook, who previously took a team with a sub-.500 record to the Division 1 Final in 2012. “Our guys were loose and having fun. They just keep doing it.”

The unranked Pilots (27-13) will play for their first MHSAA championship since 2009 against No. 2 Saline at 11:30 a.m. Saturday. 

Puckett and another sophomore, Easton Sikorski, have been the team’s aces this season. Sikorski came in to throw the final inning and get the save Thursday, and he’ll be on the mound Saturday.

Cook let Puckett know Monday that he’d be first up. 

“I was just trying to stay calm, do my daily routine,” Puckett said. “I was excited to pitch this game.

“That’s how his demeanor is all the time, and I think to be a pitcher in a situation like this, when he’s calm, cool and collected, his teammates feed off of it too,” Cook said. “The defense doesn’t get nervous when he walks a guy. He doesn’t get nervous when he walks a guy.”

West (41-3) struck first when junior Gavin Garmhausen drove home senior Nick Brzezinski in the third inning.

But Puckett wasn’t rattled. In fact, he didn’t give up another hit.

Sophomore Jake Badalamenti, meanwhile, continued to up the reputation of the Class of 2019 with a two-run single to give the Pilots a 2-1 lead in the top of the fourth inning. The seniors added insurance in the sixth inning, when designated hitter Mike Kostuch drove home second baseman Matt Held.

Badalamenti was the only player on either team with multiple hits, reaching safely in both of his at bats. Another shining sophomore, West’s Ryan Hayes, struck out four and gave up only six hits in tossing a complete game for the Titans, who were playing in an MHSAA Semifinal for the first time.

West, ranked No. 9 heading into the postseason, beat two top-four teams on the way to East Lansing.

“We broke a lot of records this year. Winning 41 games, they’ve just competed this whole tournament, all year long,” West coach Matt Bocian said, “I have to tip my cap to my players for not giving up all day today, and all tournament.”

Click for the full box score.

Saline 5, Hartland 3

Saline senior Josh Nelson has become quite effective relieving pressure-packed situations for one of Michigan’s top high school teams.

Add champion slayer to his body of work as well.

Nelson threw the final 4 1/3 innings of Thursday’s second Semifinal, holding reigning Division 1 champion Hartland to two runs, and drove home the tying run with a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning.

One run had scored and the bases were loaded when Nelson came into the game with two outs in the third inning and got a strikeout to end the Eagles’ rally.

"This is the third time this baseball tournament that I’ve come in with the bases loaded. I’ve become used to it, but it’s always stressful,” Nelson said. “But I was just glad that I was able to have the opportunity to help my team win a Semifinal and go to the state championship.” 

Saline (35-6) took a 2-0 lead in the second inning, but Hartland edged back over the next few with a run in the third and two in the top of the fifth. Nelson’s sacrifice brought home the first of three Saline runs that put the Hornets ahead and then the game out of reach in the sixth inning. 

Senior shortstop Thomas Miller, sophomore first baseman Cole Daniels and junior designated hitter Kellan Huang all had two hits for Saline, and senior right fielder Richard Hovde drove in two runs.

Hartland senior John Baker, a star of last season’s championship run, had two hits and drove in a run for the No. 10 Eagles (36-6-1). 

Last year’s title was the first for Hartland, and Saline is seeking the same. The Hornets have played in four championship games previously, and most recently in 2010, but have yet to end victorious.

“We’re forgetting about that,” Nelson said, “and we’re going to win a state title.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Warren DeLaSalle's Nino Puckett prepares to deliver a pitch during Thursday's first Division 1 Semifinal. (Middle) Saline's Cole Daniels slides in safely as Hartland catcher Cade Martin tries to make the tag during the second Semifinal.

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.)