D2 Semis: Finals Veterans Book Return

June 12, 2014

By Andy Sneddon
Special for Second Half 

EAST LANSING – Dillon McInerney delivered at the plate for Richmond on Thursday.

On Saturday, it may be his arm that helps bring the Blue Devils an MHSAA Division 2 championship.

McInerney’s sixth-inning RBI double broke a 1-1 tie and lifted Richmond to a 2-1 win over DeWitt in their Semifinal at Michigan State University’s McLane Baseball Stadium.

Richmond (35-3) will play Mount Pleasant (31-8-1) in the title game Saturday. The Blue Devils, ranked No. 10, could turn to McInerney – or any number of standout arms – as they try to take the step that eluded them last season when they lost, 3-0, in the Final to Grand Rapids Christian.

“We just want it more this year because we lost last year,” said McInerney, who had two of Richmond’s eight hits. “We’re hungry. We’re not done yet, that’s for sure.”

Zach Leach went the distance for the win, striking out five, walking two and surrendering four hits. Leach improved to 11-1, while McInerney is 12-0 with a 1.00 earned run average and could get the ball in Saturday’s Final.

Third-year Richmond coach Scott Evans would not tip his hand as to who would start, but did say his players know full well what it’s going to take to win their 33rd consecutive game Saturday.

“You’ve got to have that stud rise up, and (Leach) was our guy today,” Evans said. “When it comes time for Saturday’s game, one of our studs has to play like a stud. Last year, no one stepped up for us in that final game.”

Leach stepped up big time when his team most needed him Thursday. Trailing 1-0 in the fifth inning, DeWitt loaded the bases on a Chris Ruby single and two walks. Ruby scored on a wild pitch, but Leach regained his composure and got the final out of the inning on a called third strike, stranding runners at second and third and keeping the game tied.

“I’ve just learned to clear my head and not worry about the base runners or what’s going on behind me and just throw the next strike,” Leach said. “(The umpire) gave me a low strike call, and I thank him for that because that was definitely a tight spot and if I wouldn’t have gotten that call it would have been bases loaded with two outs.”

“That was a good opportunity,” DeWitt coach Alan Shankel said. “It was a close call and it didn’t go our way. That’s the way the game is. It’s an uncontrollable factor. We don’t worry about those things, and you go to the next opportunity. They did a great job of keeping us off balance and limiting our opportunities.”

It didn’t take long for Richmond to regain the lead. Evan Kratt singled with one out in the top of the sixth inning, and then McInerney smoked the ball over the head of the centerfielder for a double, scoring Kratt with the go-ahead run.

Leach held the fort one last time when the Panthers threatened in the bottom of the seventh. Timmy Lowe doubled and reached third with two outs, but Leach got a game-ending grounder.

Evans stuck with Leach, a senior right-hander, despite several relief options, including Ryan Boyd, his shortstop and closer.

“He’s a four-year starter,” Evans said of Leach, “and he’s a guy that when you go out to talk to him at about 85 or 90 pitches, he says ‘I’m just getting loose Coach, get back to the dugout.’”

Leach doubled with two out in the second inning and scored on a Boyd single to break a scoreless tie.

Sam Smith struck out five and walked two in taking the loss. DeWitt, making its first Semifinal appearance since 2003, finished 23-11. Click for the box score.

Mount Pleasant 7, Richland Gull Lake 1

Hunter Buczkowski had three hits, drove in three runs and pitched a complete game in leading the Oilers to their first MHSAA title game since 2008.

Buczkowski struck out four, walked three and allowed five hits.

Dean Marais also had three hits including a two-run double off the top of the fence in right field in the first inning, staking the Oilers – who had 12 hits – to a 2-0 lead.

Joe Genia added a pair of two-run singles for Mount Pleasant, which will vie for its third MHSAA title and first since 2007.

The Oilers fell in the Quarterfinals last season.

“They weren’t playing not to lose; they came here to win, and that’s what I’m most proud of,” Mount Pleasant coach Luke Epple said. “We thought we could have been here last year pretty easily, but we didn’t execute at the end (of the Quarterfinal loss) and we didn’t throw strikes.

“This year we’ve played much better defense and our pitching has been strong just like last year, but you’re seeing some of our young guys swing the bat and hit with men on. These are big games for us. Five of our (starting) guys today were underclassmen. We have confidence in them, and we know that they’re going to be good ballplayers.”

Buczkowski, one of four sophomores in the Oilers’ lineup Thursday, issued all three of his free passes and hit a batter in the seventh inning when the Blue Devils (30-10) scored their only run.

Buczkowski struck out Gull Lake cleanup hitter Jarod Burton with the bases loaded to end the game. Epple twice visited Buczkowski on the mound in the seventh.

“He said, ‘This is your game and I want you to finish it,’” said Buczkowski, who threw 115 pitches in improving to 8-2. “That seventh inning was the longest inning I think I’ve ever played.”

Walter Graf walked two and struck out two in taking the loss for Gull Lake. Click for the box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) A Richmond hitter connects during his team’s 2-1 Semifinal win over DeWitt on Thursday. (Middle) Hunter Buczkowski threw a complete game for Mount Pleasant as it advanced to Saturday’s Division 2 championship game.

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.)