D3 Contenders Hold On for 1-run Wins

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

June 16, 2017

EAST LANSING – It looked like a mismatch. Madison Heights Bishop Foley, an annual powerhouse with plenty of pitching that had breezed through the tournament, against a sub-.500 team with little past tournament success.

It was anything but. Caro put a scare into the Ventures, but Bishop Foley held on for a 3-2 victory in a Division 3 Semifinal at Michigan State’s McLane Stadium on Friday.

Bishop Foley (24-12) will play top-ranked Traverse City St. Francis for the title at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

St. Francis (38-3) advanced to its first Final thanks to some fine pitching and Cooper Peterson’s sacrifice fly in the eighth inning that pushed across the winning run in a 3-2 victory over Schoolcraft.  

Bishop Foley, ranked No. 7 heading into this postseason and Division 3 champ from 2011-13, is a member of the highly competitive Detroit Catholic League, and the Ventures weren’t expected to be tested by a team that started 0-7 and had to adjust to a coaching change after the slow start.

Ethan Hoffman went the distance for the victory as he struck out 11 and surrendered two hits, one walk and one earned run.

The Ventures scored runs in the first, third and fifth innings off Deven Hodder. Although they didn’t have many hard-hit balls, the Ventures appeared to be in good shape going into the top of the sixth inning.

But Caro’s Dylan Brown led off with a triple and scored on Conner Langenburg’s sacrifice bunt. Langenburg reached base on an error and later scored on a failed pickoff attempt. The Tigers had the tying run on first when Steven Strachan III was hit by a pitch, but the inning ended on a failed stolen base attempt.

Hoffman then set the side down in order in the seventh inning, sending the Ventures to their fifth MHSAA Final.

“I came in and did my routine,” Hoffman said. “Everything was working. I established my fastball early. That sixth was pretty nerve-racking. That seventh showed I could come back from that.”

Bishop Foley made a couple of base-running miscues as well. Evan Finegan knocked in the Ventures’ first run with a single but Justin Campbell, who had drawn a walk one batter earlier, was picked off of second to end the inning.

A Campbell single scored Finegan for Bishop Foley’s third run in the fifth inning, but a pickoff ended that rally as well.

Second-year Bishop Foley coach Greg Fettes is happy to be in the Final, but he wasn’t pleased with the overall play of his team.

“I told my guys that the only team that’s going to beat us in this tournament is ourselves,” Fettes said. “You almost saw that in the sixth. We haven’t done that all year. We looked like a Little League team.”

Fettes wasn’t pleased with his players’ approach at the plate either. Bishop Foley had scored 36 runs over its last three games entering Friday.

“That’s what we do, swing, swing, swing,” he said. “Look at our playoff wins. I’ll have them ready to go (on Saturday).”

Caro (15-22) outplayed Bishop Foley defensively. Shortstop Mason Campbell made a leaping catch to rob Finegan of a hit to start the sixth and Strachan, the first baseman, made an over-the-shoulder catch going down the foul line to retire the next batter.

Caro coach Victor Gomez said it was a smooth transition for him when he took over the program. He was an assistant for two seasons and was familiar with the players.

“We just had to let the kids know we believed in them,” he said. “I watched them grow up. I saw they had the skill set.”

Click for the full box score.

Traverse City St. Francis 3, Schoolcraft 2

Joe Muzljakovich pitched the first 6 2/3 innings for St. Francis and kept his team in the game by getting out of bases loaded situation in the fifth. He was removed with the bases loaded in the seventh, and Conner Sweet came on in relief and threw one pitch to get out of that jam.

Gabe Callery, the leadoff hitter, led off the eighth for St. Francis with a walk and ended up at third base after a failed pick-off and sacrifice. Junior Cooper Peterson came up to bad and did what coach Tom Passinault told him to do.

“He told me just to get a piece of the ball,” Peterson said. “He said get it to the outfield. I just kind of poked it. (Darren Kehoe) threw me a curve and I was a little out front.”

Ricky Clark batted in Schoolcraft’s first run in the first inning with a ground out that scored Nolan Anspaugh, who had tripled. Anspaugh also scored in the third on a sacrifice fly after reaching base on a double.

Blake Bales pitched well for No. 5 Schoolcraft (25-11), as he went 6 2/3 innings, allowed three hits and struck out eight.

Sweet picked up the victory for the Gladiators, allowing a walk and one base hit. 

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Bishop Foley's Ethan Hoffman delivers a pitch during the first Division 3 Semifinal on Friday. (Middle) St. Francis' Artie Dutmers slides into home for one of his team's three runs. 

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.)