Cowboys hoping to ride into Battle Creek

May 18, 2012

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

At least once a week, former longtime Detroit Western International baseball coach Ziggy Gonzalez stops in to Cowboys practice to offer a taste of the program’s history.

“Big Dad” coached the 1972 team that fell 3-1 in the Class A Final and the 1973 team that advanced to the Semis. Among his former players was the late Todd Cruz, who earned a World Series ring as part of the 1983 Baltimore Orioles.

“I tell these guys, we don’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been,” current coach Juan Carlos Sanchez said.

Detroit Western is attempting to go somewhere a Detroit Public School league team hasn’t been in a while – and hoping to accomplish a feat no PSL school has attained before.

The Cowboys, recipients of this week’s Second Half team High 5, are 22-4 heading into this afternoon’s PSL Semifinal matchup against Detroit Cass Tech. Western hasn’t lost a league game in at least five seasons – but took that success to the next level last season when it came within an out of advancing to the MHSAA Division 1 Semifinals at Battle Creek’s Bailey Park.

Western led Temperance Bedford 2-0 in their Quarterfinal before falling 3-2 and ending the season 18-13 overall. Remembering that day, the Cowboys break huddles now with “3-2, Finish!”

“It’s been their focus and drive all year,” Sanchez said. “They’ve been determined to get back, and once I explained the magnitude of making history like that (as potentially the first champion from the PSL) … that’s something they want to be a part of.”

And the Cowboys have a number of reasons to anticipate this final month of the season.

Of 16 players, 14 were on the team during last season’s run. They are led by a strong core which will be back in 2013 as well – juniors Hector Gutierrez Jr. and Jose Ramon Morales, and sophomore Luis Chapa, the team’s top three pitchers and 2-3-4 hitters in the lineup. Gutierrez and Morales man the middle of the infield for the second straight season.

Their only losses this season were to No. 10 Macomb Dakota during spring break and then to top-ranked Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice. Sanchez purposely has tried to fill the schedule with strong competition, and the Cowboys should get a look at more top teams at Saturday’s Warren Mott Invitational.

They put in the work. Sanchez said he got texts all offseason from players asking for the key to the school’s batting cage. Seniors and juniors have led conditioning on off-days.

And they’ve got tradition and support. While the state rankings are filled with teams from suburbs and small towns, those from the state’s biggest cities frequently struggle. But southwest Detroit is a baseball community. There’s a thriving men’s league, and Sanchez – who grew up there, attended Detroit Catholic Central and played baseball at the University of Detroit – said it’s common to find pick-up games on Saturdays and Sundays.

"(Baseball) is something bred in us,” he said. “It’s passed down from generations, not just from dads but moms as well. It gets fed to them every day.”

Before last season, the Cowboys had come close to breaking through to the season’s final week during Sanchez' decade coaching in the program – and last season’s run sent the players’ confidence soaring.

Next month, they hope to take another championship step. 

“We set the expectations high early,” he said. “We’re not just content to be a good city team. We want to win statewide.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Sophomore Tratez Henton stands in against a Detroit Martin Luther King pitcher this season. (Middle) Coaches speak to the team after its win over King. (Photo courtesy of the Detroit Public School League.)

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.)