Early End to 2017 Drives Veteran Sturgis

May 8, 2018

By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half

All the pieces are in place for the Sturgis varsity baseball team to potentially still be playing in June.

As of Wednesday’s Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association poll, the Trojans fit in at No. 19 in Division 2, though the rankings are somewhat arbitrary as some teams on the list had played as few as four games.

But after a 19-14 season in 2017 — without a single senior on the squad — Sturgis fourth-year head coach Drew Rutenbar knew the program had an opportunity to do something special this spring.

With 11 seniors this year and a five-man junior class that made a significant impact last season, the Trojans are gunning to win a Wolverine Conference championship after finishing third in the league in 2017, which was followed by a disappointing Pre-District ouster by St. Joseph County rival Three Rivers.

“First goal on our minds right now is the Wolverine Conference,” Rutenbar said. “In my time as a coach, that’s the piece that’s missing and this group is ready to make that happen. This is a group of guys that I have heard about since they entered middle school. Last year’s season came to an abrupt stop, and we didn’t take care of what we wanted to do. These guys are all in.”

The seniors are Dalton Smith, Sam Leck, Korbin Whitcomb, Jacob Morales, Jake Abbs, Avery Cleveland, Brian Jordan, Brecken Stewart, James Campbell, Tyler Lovelace and Anthony Harper. Juniors Isaac Harper, Zach Chapman, Drew Murphy, Parker Stephens and Braydon Bathgate round out the talented roster.

At 15-2 overall and 9-1 in league play (tied with Edwardsburg atop the standings), the Trojans have upped their offensive production from last spring and outscored opponents 100-55. Seven players are hitting above .300, and not a single pitcher in the rotation has allowed more than six earned runs. Defense always has been a strength, but Sturgis adds more speed and power with this year’s lineup.

Murphy is 3-0 on the bump with a 3.51 ERA, Leck is 3-1 operating with a 1.47 ERA, Jordan and Harper are both 2-0 and Stewart, Abbs, Lovelace and Campbell all have won games, helping to preserve arms for the final stretch.

Abbs leads the team with 22 hits to go along with 13 RBI, 11 stolen bases and 16 runs scored. Murphy is hitting .396 with 19 hits and 12 RBI, Whitcomb is hitting at a .395 clip and boasts 17 hits, a pair of home runs and 12 RBI; and Stevens, who has appeared in 12 games, is hitting .452 with 14 hits and 10 RBI.

Cleveland, Morales, Leck and Bathgate all are hitting higher than .300, Stewart is pacing the squad with 17 RBI, and Whitcomb and Leck have eight steals apiece.

“We’ve been in a handful of character-building games that we had to battle back or make last at-bat comebacks,” Rutenbar explained. “Our four go-to conference pitchers have come in and taken care of business. And a big help to our success this season is being so deep with guys who can throw.

“As coaches, it’s our job to find how each team works best. This group is laid back, goofy and plays best when playing relaxed. If our dugout was quiet and we were putting pressure on them because a game might be important, they don’t play their best.”

Beyond experience, talent and atmosphere, there are sometimes other intangible factors that can take a team to the next level. Whitcomb’s expedient rehabilitation after a torn anterior cruciate ligament early in the football season has been priceless. Originally told he would not be healthy in time for his final year of baseball, Whitcomb beat those odds and has been a driving force for the Trojans both in his play and his guidance.

“It was a long five or six months,” Whitcomb said. “It was rough. I got back into weight training 2-3 months after (surgery). I’ve been working on my hitting, and I learned a couple new pitches in the offseason. We had a lot of potential last year and we had a decent season, but we could have done a lot better. That’s been our motivation for this year.”

That and simply not taking the ability to compete for granted, which Whitcomb clearly understands. The mild-mannered student-athlete has stepped up this spring to vocally ensure everyone else is on the same page.

“With 11 seniors it has been interesting to see who will really step up and lead,” Rutenbar said. “Korbin has been that guy so far for us. I think he’s just happy to be able to play baseball this season, and he’s doing everything he can to make sure they live up to their full potential.”

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Sturgis teammates congratulate Korbin Whitcomb as he heads back to the dugout during a game against Marshall on March 26 at Notre Dame University. (Middle) The Trojans enjoy a lighter moment during that doubleheader. (Photos courtesy of JoeInsider.com.)

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.)