D3 Finalists End Long Waits to Return

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

June 12, 2015

EAST LANSING – Except for a couple of hiccups, Jackson Lumen Christi coach Phil Clifford’s game plan could hardly have worked better Friday.

And now Clifford has his rotation all set for the MHSAA Final.

Pitching on two day’s rest, Zach Mehelich went four innings and gave up two runs as Lumen Christi defeated Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker 7-3 in a Division 3 Semifinal at McLane Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University.

Chris Cooper’s triple produced the game’s first run, and he scored on Connor Mogle’s single to give the Titans a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning. Cooper’s drive to right fooled the outfielder as he came in a few steps before retreating, but the ball went over his head.

“I just go up there and swing the bat,” Cooper said. “I go up there to hit, not take pitches.

“I saw (the outfielder) charge it a little bit. I just kept on running, hoping I wouldn’t catch Joe (Mehelich).”

Lumen Christi (23-16), winners of seven straight, will play Buchanan (24-7) for the title at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

The Titans added another run in the third inning and broke open the game with a four-run fourth.

“Zach threw 130 pitches and went 10 innings on Tuesday,” Clifford said. “We wanted to get some innings out of him today. We wanted four, and we got four.”

Saturday’s will be the Titans’ second MHSAA Final appearance. They won the 1978 Class B title with a 10-6 victory over Spring Lake.

Clifford’s plan is to use Mehelich, 10-2 now after earning the victory, in relief if needed. Clifford might go with Josh Iocca, who threw the final three innings to get the save Friday, or go with Josh Fleming, who started at catcher.

“It’s the Final,” Clifford said. “Anyone who can pitch is available.”

Normally a strong team defensively, Lumen Christi committed three errors. The first two didn’t play into the scoring, but the third one did.

Trailing 3-0, the Lakers (22-11) broke through with a run on Austin McCabe’s RBI double. McCabe then scored on an infield error to make it 3-2 going into the bottom of the fourth.

Lumen Christi’s defense saved at least one run during the previous inning. With one out, Jacob Periso reached base on an infield error and went to third on Brady Post’s single. Dustin Kady then hit a fly to fairly deep right field, where Zach Spicer made the catch and threw one hop to Fleming, who put the tag on Periso to end the inning.

“I thought I’d be late on the bounce,” Spicer said. “It was pretty cool. It was great for our confidence.”

Despite the loss, this was the Lakers’ best season. They had never won a Regional before this spring.

Laker coach Adam Grybauskas said Spicer’s throw was perhaps the key play of the game.

“The throw from the outfield was a perfect throw,” Grybauskas said. “A foot here or a foot there and he’s safe.”

Click for the box score.

Buchanan 6, Gladstone 4

Buchanan trailed Gladstone 3-0 after two innings before Kyle Leazenby relieved Jarrett Thomas and held the Braves to a run on five hits.

The Bucks haven’t been to a Final since 1985, when they defeated Grandville Calvin Christian, 3-2, for the Class C title. Buchanan also lost in the 1981 and 1982 Class C Finals. 

Buchanan scored two in the third inning Friday and took its first lead, 5-4, in the bottom of the fifth scoring three runs, two unearned.

Thomas had the big hit in the inning, a two-run double that tied the game at 4-4. Thomas stole second and came home on Chad Adkerson’s sacrifice fly.

“I never found myself on the mound,” Thomas said. “I had to keep focusing. I had to do something else to help the team. With two men on, I had to do the job.”

Thomas moved to shortstop after being relieved. He threw 145 pitches during Saturday’s Regional and seemed tired. He walked five and threw 63 pitches Friday.

Leazenby, a sophomore, set the side down in order in the third and seventh innings, and did not walk a batter. 

He had worked four innings in Tuesday’s 7-4 Quarterfinal victory over Lansing Catholic.

“I feel I had a lot more left after Tuesday,” Leazenby said. “I was very pumped up. It’s a lot different than Tuesday.” 

Jake Peterson went the distance on the mound for Gladstone (28-10). He also had three hits and two RBI.

Gladstone is expected to field another fine team next season as coach Don Lauscher had just two seniors and two juniors this spring.

Click for the box score. 

PHOTOS: (Top) A Lumen Christi hitter turns on a pitch during Friday’s Division 3 Semifinal. (Middle) Buchanan's Kyle Leazenby prepares to fire during his relief appearance Friday.

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.)