Early Bumps, Smooth Landing for DeLaSalle
June 18, 2016
By Andy Sneddon
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – A bunch of young Warren DeLaSalle Pilots earned their wings Saturday.
And from the looks of it, DeLaSalle baseball could be flying high for a while.
Sophomore Bryce Bush put the Pilots ahead to stay with a sixth-inning two-run single, and another sophomore, Nino Puckett, pitched out of a bases-loaded jam to notch the save as DeLaSalle defeated Saline, 7-6, in the MHSAA Division 1 baseball championship game at Michigan State University’s McLane Baseball Stadium.
It was the fourth MHSAA crown for DeLaSalle (28-13), which entered the tournament unranked. Second-ranked Saline (35-7) lost in the Final for the fifth time in school history.
Two other sophomores, starting pitcher Easton Sikorski and catcher Mac Graybill, played key roles in the Pilots’ victory.
“At the beginning of the year, we knew we might take our lumps a little bit and we did early on, but we grew from it,” DeLaSalle coach Matt Cook said. “We lost a lot of close games, a lot of one-run games. You learn from it and you chalk it up as experience and you move on and you try to get better every day.
“Our seniors, they kept this team together. You need leadership when you have a young team and five seniors – you couldn’t ask for better leaders. I didn’t name captains this year because all five of them were captains in my mind. They were the guys.”
The Pilots led 4-0 after two innings, but Saline chipped away and used a three-run sixth – highlighted by Sean O’Keefe’s two-run homer – to seize a 6-5 lead.
DeLaSalle responded in the bottom of the sixth as Matt Kostuch was hit by a pitch leading off. Brett Sandora pinch ran and was sacrificed to second. Graybill was then hit by a pitch, prompting Saline to go to its bullpen for O’Keefe.
An O’Keefe pitch was in the dirt and Sandora stole third, sliding in under the tag, while Graybill moved up to second. Bush then delivered a hard single back through the box, scoring Sandora to tie the score and Graybill with the go-ahead run.
“They read ball-in-dirt,” Cook said of his base runners. “We’re not a big stealing team, especially with Bryce Bush and (cleanup hitter) Rob Zurawski, we know they can drive guys in, so I don’t want to run into outs.
“We tell our guys read ball-in-dirt, and as soon as (Sandora) saw the ball go in the dirt he instinctually took off like he should. Thank goodness he was safe because that put Bryce in a great position. Bryce comes through time and time again.”
Puckett relieved Sikorski to start the top of the seventh inning. Three walks – one intentional to O’Keefe – and a sacrifice bunt loaded the bases with one out. Puckett induced a 4-6-3 double play to end the game.
Sikorski allowed six hits, walked two and struck out two in earning the victory.
Josh Nelson, Saline’s second pitcher, took the loss. He allowed three runs on two hits, walked three and struck out three over 4 1/3 innings. He had also entered Thursday’s Semifinal in relief, earning the win over reigning champion Hartland.
The Pilots entered the tournament with 21 wins against 13 losses – hardly an attention-grabbing win percentage. But few teams across the state can lay claim to having played the type of schedule that De La Salle did.
“Every Wednesday and Saturday, when we have our league doubleheaders, we’re facing some of the best teams in the state,” said Cook, who rattled off some of the Pilots’ opponents, a list that reads like a who’s who of the state best programs, including the likes of Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, Birmingham Brother Rice, Dearborn Divine Child, Detroit U-D Jesuit and Detroit Catholic Central.
In addition, the Pilots’ schedule this season included Sterling Heights Parkway Christian and Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett, both of which played for MHSAA championships Saturday.
“It’s state-championship caliber baseball every game you play,” Cook said. “It puts you in position where you’re ready.
“We never played bad baseball this year; we always played good baseball. We were just learning to finish a day. We’d split doubleheaders, we’d win by a couple runs, we’d lose by one (run). We just learned to finish, play a complete day of baseball, and we started to do that and things started to roll and the kids were confident.”
PHOTOS: (Top) A Warren DeLaSalle hitter gets around on a pitch during Saturday’s Division 1 Final. (Middle) Saline shortstop Thomas Miller turns to throw to first base for a potential double play as DeLaSalle’s Ben Hyndman slides into second.
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.
So, 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.
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.
“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.
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 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.)