D1 Semis: South Seeks to Unseat Champ

June 12, 2014

By Andy Sneddon
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING – One big inning, one big relief performance.

And Grosse Pointe South will play for an MHSAA baseball championship. 

The Blue Devils used a five-run fourth inning and the clutch relief pitching of Andrew Eaton in topping Battle Creek Lakeview, 6-4, on Thursday in an MHSAA Division 1 Semifinal at Michigan State’s McLane Baseball Stadium.

South (27-17), seeking its first championship since 2001, will play defending champ Bay City Western (37-7) in the title game Saturday. 

Western, ranked No. 4, advanced with a 6-1 victory over Clarkston and will attempt to become the first school in the 43-year history of the MHSAA tournament to win back-to-back championships at the highest level (Division I or Class A).

South is unranked and largely unheralded, but far from untested. The Blue Devils overcame a 7-12 start to win the rugged Macomb Area Conference Red and upset second-ranked Sterling Heights Stevenson on Tuesday in a Quarterfinal. South had lost three times, by a combined 26-5, to Stevenson during the regular season. 

“I’m so proud of this group,” said Dan Griesbaum, who is in his 31st season as South’s coach and is the state’s ninth all-time winningest coach with 707 victories. “They’ve just come such a long way.

“What we’ve done the last three weeks has just been amazing. We’re not seeing anyone in the playoffs who’s better than what we saw in the regular season. We’re used to this kind of stuff. We’re used to playing good competition.” 

South could muster just one hit, a Ronald Williams single, off Lakeview starter Jacob Herbers through three innings.

Trailing 1-0, the Blue Devils broke through in the fourth, batting around and using five hits, an error, and a wild pitch to seize a 5-1 lead. 

Lakeview (32-6) responded in the next half inning, batting around and scoring three runs on four hits to draw to 5-4.

“The thing that you want, right after you get up like that, is to come out and shut them down, and that’s exactly what we didn’t do,” Griesbaum said. “It was kind of frustrating. But a good team keeps battling, and that’s exactly what we did.” 

Eaton came on for starter Douglas Graham with a runner on third base and no one out after the Spartans had pulled close. Eaton, a sophomore right-hander, got a lineout and a groundout, but then issued a walk and hit a batter to load the bases. He got a strikeout to end the inning.

James Fishback’s RBI double in the fifth inning extended South’s lead to 6-4. Lakeview threatened in the seventh, using an error, a single and a walk to load the bases. Eaton induced a game-ending flyout to end the drama. 

“I was a little nervous there, but I just knew I had to calm myself down and get through it,” said Eaton, who allowed two hits, walked two and struck out four over three innings. “I think we’re sort of like a Cinderella team. No one really expected us to be here. … It’s just been a great run for us.”

Graham earned the win, allowing nine hits while striking out four over four innings. 

Herbers surrendered nine hits in taking the loss. He struck out six and walked two. Just three of South’s six runs were earned.

Lakeview finished with 11 hits – Gavin Homer, Herbers and Russell Mathiak had two apiece – but stranded 11 runners, including eight in scoring position. Click for the full box score.

Bay City Western 6, Clarkston 1 

Brandon Wise had three hits and Scott Badour tossed a five-hitter for Western, a team that lost seven starters to graduation after winning the 2013 Division 1 championship.

“I am (surprised), but I don’t want to downplay my team,” said coach Tim McDonald, who is in his 22nd year at Western. “They have been rock-solid for six straight (tournament) games. It’s going to take a really good team to beat us, because we don’t beat ourselves. 

“In high school baseball and in probably any high school sport, if you don’t beat yourselves then that’s half the battle. If you don’t walk people and you don’t make errors – its tough to put two, three hits together at any level, and that’s what we’re making teams do.”

The Warriors graduated 10 players total off last year’s team, which became just the second in school history to win an MHSAA championship, along with the 1999 boys golf squad. 

Six players from that 2013 baseball squad have gone on to play college ball.

“We have two starters back from last year, and we start four sophomores,” McDonald said. “They’ve stopped surprising me. I think they don’t think of themselves as sophomores anymore. We don’t have any stars on this team. We don’t have that one guy that you’ve really got to be careful of. It’s a team in every aspect of the word. We play baseball the way I think baseball should be played. We move runners along, we take advantage of opportunities, and it’s fun to watch.” 

Western gave Badour all the support he would need with two runs in the second inning. The runners were driven home by Tyler Snover (sacrifice fly) and Jason Clark (two-out single), both sophomores.

Badour’s sacrifice fly and Snover’s RBI single in the fourth inning extended Western’s lead to 4-0, and the Warriors upped their advantage to 5-0 in the fifth when Carson Eby was hit by a pitch and eventually scored on a throwing error. 

Clarkston got back-to-back doubles in the fourth inning from Nathan Witt and Mitch Smith to plate it’s only run.

Badour struck out four and walked two. The Wolves (20-13) stranded seven runners. 

“That’s Scott Badour,” McDonald said. “Not overpowering, but he’s a pitcher with a capital ‘P.’ He knows what he’s doing; he uses his defense. He stepped up huge for us.”

Witt allowed nine hits and walked one over 5 1/3 innings in taking the loss. 

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Grosse Pointe South’s Andrew Eaton threw three innings of relief to help his team return to the Division 1 Final. (Middle) Bay City Western’s Zach Schirmer scores in the second inning past Clarkston catcher Nick Morey.

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.)