Frankfort Carries Perfect Start into May

May 12, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

It’s no secret in the small town of Frankfort that longtime coach Mike Zimmerman plans to retire after the 2018 season.

In the meantime, his Panthers – most of them juniors who will finish up next spring as well – are off to an incredible start to what is shaping up as a long and successful farewell tour.

The MHSAA/Applebee’s Team of the Month for April, Frankfort’s baseball team is now 25-0 – its best start under Zimmerman, who took over the program in 1994 after six seasons as an assistant coach.

Included in its April victories were a pair over Maple City Glen Lake – a Northwest Conference rival which eliminated the Panthers in the District last spring. A 10-0 win over McBain three days later on April 21 gave Zimmerman the 500th win of a coaching career that’s seen him lead Frankfort to five Regional titles and four MHSAA Semifinal appearances.

He plans to be done after next season so he’ll be able to watch son Brett – one of those juniors – play at Wayne State University. But of course, that’s down the road a bit. For now, his Panthers are top-ranked in Division 4 and enjoying their time together that started when the current seniors got to high school and were joined the next spring by six current juniors who started as freshmen – but really, it all began much earlier than that.

“I’ve coached these kids since they were 5. I’ve always been their coach,” Zimmerman said. “I know their personalities. They know my personality. And that all helps.

“It’s not like I have one son on the team. These kids hang out at my house; it’s like I have a whole team of sons. And that makes it special too.”

Two seniors and seven juniors start, with a third senior working through an injury. From the outside, that might make this team seem young – but as Zimmerman points out, many of his players have 60 varsity games under their belts.

Junior Jack Morrow noted to the Traverse City Record-Eagle after the McBain sweep three weeks ago that he and his teammates had a feeling at the start of high school that they’d eventually put together this kind of success. The Panthers took a step with a solid 23-9 in 2016.

This spring Morrow and junior Kirk Myers together have combined to pitch for more than half that many wins already. Morrow is 6-0 with a 0.87 ERA and Myers, also the shortstop, is 7-0 with a 0.65 ERA.

They also hit .422 and .415, respectively, with Brett Zimmerman pacing the offense at .529 and junior Griffin Kelly at .439. Zimmerman, the catcher, also has thrown out an incredible 15 of 18 would-be base stealers.

Perhaps more importantly, at least to the players, the tall guys lead the homer contest 7-4. That’s just another way these guys are having fun – Panthers 6-foot and taller are trying to hold off the sub-6ers in a longball derby.

Frankfort has clinched a share of the Northwest Conference title – especially impressive again as Glen Lake also is ranked, at No. 7 in Division 4. The Panthers can claim the championship outright Tuesday against Mesick.

And then comes a tournament road with some notable obstacles – if Frankfort makes it through the District, No. 5 Muskegon Catholic Central is a possible Regional opponent while seeking its second Division 4 title in three seasons.

But Zimmerman said he players aren’t looking that far, focusing first on improving so they’ll be ready for whatever opportunities this postseason might hold.

“They’ve been together so long, they know each other well, they trust each other,” Mike Zimmerman said. “They don’t care about stats. They care about trying to win.”

Past Teams of the Month, 2016-17
Flushing girls basketball - Report
Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central girls skiing - Report
Powers North Central boys basketball - Report
Dundee boys basketball - Report
Rockford girls swimming & diving - Report
Rochester girls golf - Report
September: Breckenridge football - Report

PHOTOS: (Top) Frankort's Kirk Myers (5) watches a teammate cross the plate during a win this season over Suttons Bay. (Middle) The Panthers celebrate coach Mike Zimmerman's 500th win. (Photo courtesy of Frankfort baseball program.)

Algonac Diamond Teams Hope Matching Successes Lead to East Lansing

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

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.)