D3 Semis: Aces Lead Final Advance

June 13, 2014

Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor 

EAST LANSING – Cody Huston was covered from neck to forearm in ice bags Friday afternoon after Decatur’s 2-1 Division 4 Semifinal win over Gladstone at McLane Stadium.

Eight innings of near-flawless pitching takes a toll – although the Raiders junior said he “could’ve gone as many as my team needed me to go.” 

It’s tough to imagine Huston giving his teammates much more.

Not only did he allow just one hit in the longest start of his career, he also drove home the game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning after Gladstone elected to intentionally walk junior Matthew Botti before him. 

“I was having a little off day with the hitting. Right time to do it, I guess,” Huston said. “I thought it was just my time to step up and help my team out. They had my back the whole game. It was my turn to step up and show them what it was all about.”

Decatur (24-6), long a Division 4 power but playing in Division 3 this season, will face Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett at 5 p.m. Saturday in hopes of winning its fifth MHSAA title and second in three seasons.

Huston is part of seven-player junior class that’s played together since Little League. Five juniors started Friday, along with two sophomores and two seniors.

Junior first baseman Joby Kawaski doubled home junior second baseman Carter Smith in the fifth inning for the game’s first run. And with Huston dominating, it looked like that would be enough.

But Gladstone didn’t need a hit to knot the score in the seventh inning – just some smart base running a hard-hit grounder.

With his team down to its final two outs, senior centerfielder Christian Groleau walked, stole second base and advanced to third on an error. Senior pitcher Sam Pouliot – himself throwing a gem – hit a sharp ground ball that glanced off Huston’s glove and took just enough time rolling toward the second baseman that Groleau made it home without drawing a throw.

The score stood 1-1 when Smith singled to open the bottom of the eighth inning and moved to second on a Kawaski bunt. After a groundout came Botti’s walk – he had singled in his previous at bat – and Huston came to the plate.

“Cody’s been swinging the bat really well. (But) Matthew has been swinging the bat really well, and I probably would’ve walked him too,” said Decatur coach Ben Botti, also Matthew’s father. “I had all the confidence in Cody. I said get something on the (grass), and Carter is going to score. I just knew he was going to be able to get the job done.”

Pouliot also threw a complete game, striking out nine and giving up only one earned run. Despite the loss, it was an impressive end for a Braves program that was restarted in 2013 after being discontinued in 1960. Gladstone finished its first Semifinal run 29-5, and should be primed for another graduating only a handful of key contributors.

Next season looked like it would be the big one for the Raiders. But like Huston’s big hit, it appears his team arrived in East Lansing not a year early, but right on time.

“They’ve been playing together for a long time. We started them with travel ball when they were little, and there’s not a kid on there who we didn’t coach in Little League and coming up,” Ben Botti said. “We’ve just played from the time they were that big. Are we here a year early? I don’t know, maybe. But we might be better next year.”

Click for the full box score.

Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett 7, Reese 1

Matthew Gushee started this season as University Liggett’s number three starting pitcher, and didn’t throw much during the first weeks when the weather was still wintery.

But the sophomore showed enough as the season went on to move up to second in the Knights’ rotation – and plant himself on the mound for Friday’s Semifinal against Reese.

Gushee improved to 4-1 this spring by giving up only four hits and a walk in getting the reigning Division 4 champion back into an MHSAA Final – this time in Division 3.  

“He has the best stuff probably of anyone we have, with the cutter, change and curve, and he pounds the zone,” Liggett coach Dan Cimini said. “He’s got a good grip. He’s got a good mental attitude. He plans well. He prepares well. And he wants the ball in the big game.”

The Knights gave Gushee a quick cushion, scoring two runs in the first inning, one in the second and three more in the third. Senior outfielders Ian Clark and Adam Fiema both had two hits, with Clark scoring twice and Fiema driving in two runs. Senior first baseman Anthony Simon also scored twice and drove in a run.

Reese senior Cody Peyok allowed only one earned run after taking the mound in relief during the third inning – but by then the damage was done.

This wasn’t Gushee’s first stunning performance. He also got the win in the Regional Final against top-ranked Madison Heights Bishop Foley, the three-time reigning Division 3 champ.

“He’s been a horse for us,” Cimini said, “and I’m glad we have him.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Decatur players celebrate after Carter Smith scores the winning run in their Semifinal. (Middle) Matthew Gushee fires a pitch while throwing a four-hitter for Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett.

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.)