Father, Son: Diamond Rivals No Longer

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

March 18, 2016

MATTAWAN — As Mattawan’s Brady Neel stepped to the plate, the Kalamazoo Loy Norrix baseball coach called for a shift, expecting the batter to hit toward right field.

When Neel sent the ball into the gap between second and third, driving in a run with the hit, a voice in the crowd yelled, “Nice shift, coach.”

That incident during last year’s MHSAA Division 1 District still makes for some ribbing.

The Loy Norrix coach was Brian Neel, Brady’s father, and the voice heckling the coach was Neel’s wife, Lorri.

That situation will not arise this season.

After 20 years as Loy Norrix’s baseball coach, Brian Neel resigned so he can attend the games of his sons, sophomore Brady and 13-year-old Parker, a seventh grader at Mattawan Middle School.

“We knew with Brady playing at a different school (than Brian), that’s what had to happen,” Lorri Neel said. “Last year, Brian was blowing up my phone every game wanting to know what was going on.

“I am a little relieved Brian resigned his coaching position because family comes first.”

Brian Neel knew his son had a good chance to make the varsity team as a freshman, but didn’t know he would be a starter.

That made for some interesting table talk last year.

Both father and son had their first clash, a doubleheader, marked on the calendar.

“Right when I knew I was on varsity, I had the days counted out,” Brady said. “I DH’d that day, hitting fifth. I was kind of nervous at first.

“It was kind of a weird day. When I woke up that morning, we didn’t say a word to each other. It was awkward. I got to the field and just stayed calm and played another game of baseball.”

Said Brian Neel: “I don’t normally call pitches but his very first at bat I was just trying to strike him out. I kinda know where his weaknesses are.

“He doesn’t have a lot but I know where to pitch him. It didn’t work. After him, I just let the catcher call the pitches. It was weird.”

Said Brady: “I knew he just wanted to strike me out. I just wanted to get the job done and get that run in.”

He not only knocked in the run, but went 3 for 6 including a blast off the fence as Mattawan took both games, 15-0 on a no-hitter and 10-2 in the second, giving Brady family bragging rights.

The third meeting was at the District where Mattawan won 2-1, highlighted by the infamous “shift” strategy.

“Kind of weird how Brady (and the Wildcats) ended his dad’s coaching career,” said Mattawan baseball coach Cory DeGroote, who teaches physical education at the middle school.

Being a coach’s son is one thing that helped Brady’s baseball success, DeGroote said.

“I think there’s something about a coach’s kid,” said DeGroote, who has coached the Wildcats the past 12 years. “Your baseball IQ is higher than most.

“Brady’s an extreme competitor. He’s mentally tough; he’s physically just as big and strong as most of the kids on our team. He’s played at a high level for a long time. He just fits right in.”

Brian Neel, who teaches world history at Loy Norrix, said he didn’t expect it to sink in that he was no longer coaching until tryouts, but there is one perk.

“The winter was pretty busy usually,” the coach said. “On Sundays I was at (Loy Norrix) from 8 until 1 or 2 because there’s rules on how many kids you can have.

“So it’s been nice to sleep in on Sundays. I miss being there but I don’t miss getting up at 7 a.m. or when the day is crummy, contacting people about the schedule.”

Lorri Neel, who was an all-state softball player at Mattawan and is now a surgical nurse at Bronson Methodist Hospital, said her life should be a bit easier with her husband not coaching.

“It’s going to be easier as far as having a partner to transport, but I think it’s going to be a difficult year for Brady. If he doesn’t succeed, I’m afraid he’ll blame it on his dad being around.

“(Brian) and I never sit together, ever. I’m a crazy sport, competitive. He’ll ask me after the fact what I think and I’m like, ‘Well, you asked’ … I don’t hesitate to tell him.”

Neel taught physical education for 13 years before switching to history, and that had a huge impact on his son’s life.

“He grew up in the gym ever since he was able to walk,” Brian Neel said. “My players throughout my career have been outstanding to both my boys, like big brothers. He would go around shooting baskets, hitting off the tee.

“He played Little League until (age) 10, then played travel. We have a batting cage in our backyard and we have a net he can hit into, so he’s worked his tail off to get where he’s at.”

As this season gets underway, Brady, an outfielder who also catches, has his eye on one school record.

“I didn’t have any home runs (last year) but I hit a lot off the fence and had 12 doubles, three away from the school record, which is one of my goals, and I have three more years to do that,” he said.

Neel hit .313 last season, had 23 RBI and scored 14 runs.

“His numbers for a freshman were as good as we’ve ever had,” DeGroote said.

The Wildcats, who posted a 23-13-1 record last season, lost seven seniors to graduation.

They have just four seniors this year: Sam Miller, Mitchell Dundore, Kyle Woods and Nate DeBoer.

“We lost our Nos. 1 and 3 pitchers and have a bunch of kids who are going to fight for those spots,” DeGroote said.

Woods, Cam Doornweerd and Hunter Ashmus will pitch for the Wildcats and Miller, an infielder, will also log some innings on the mound.

DeGroote said this year’s players are committed to the weight room and morning workouts.

“As a coach, you get attached to groups,” he said. “If our preseason is any indication what our season is going to be, we’re going to be all right. It’s probably the best preseason workouts I’ve ever had. 

“We’ve got tremendous leadership, extremely unselfish kids. To beat us, you’re going to have to compete for 21 outs because our kids are going to roll up their sleeves and come at you. I like that.”

As for the rivalry with Loy Norrix, father and son definitely disagree.

“We’re a pretty good hitting team, put the ball in play a lot,” Brady said. “We need to get better defensively.

“I think it will be the same (Mattawan wins) because I grew up going to (work out) at Norrix with all those guys. I have a lot of friends there, so there will still be a big rivalry. There are few kids on that team that are on the Maroons (travel team) with me.”

Said Brian Neel: “I personally think that Norrix is going to beat them this year. I want Brady to be successful in the game, but I’d probably like to see Norrix beat them.

“But then the (Loy Norrix) parents will probably say, ‘They got him out of there and now they’re winning games,’” he added, laughing.

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Brady Neel and his father Brian share a laugh during a game in 2015. (Middle) Brian Neel, Lorri Neal, Brady Neel, Cody DeGroote. (Below) Brady Neel catches during a game last summer. (Top and middle photos courtesy of the Neel family.)

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.)