Freshmen Spark Royals' Regional Return

June 8, 2018

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

Larry Tuttle has seen just about everything in his 51 seasons of coaching the Blissfield varsity baseball team. So much, in fact, that there’s not a lot of “firsts” anymore on the diamond.

But, when the Royals went out and won the 27th District title in Tuttle’s career last weekend, something new did happen. A 14-year-old pitched the Royals to the championship.

“He’s 60 years younger than me,” Tuttle said about his freshman pitcher, Ty Wyman. “That’s a lot of years.”

It’s also a lot of championships. The Royals are 25-9 this season and in the Regionals for the first time since 2010. The biggest reason they are still alive has been the development of the young players on the team. Eight of the 14 players on the Royals roster are either freshmen or sophomores, including Wyman.

“We started out a little shaky. We couldn’t find our groove,” said Wyman, who doesn’t turn 15 until late October. “It was mostly our defense. Once we started playing better defense, everything started coming together.”

When the Lenawee County Athletic Association coaches picked the all-league team this week, three of the Blissfield freshmen made first team – Wyman at first base, catcher Zach Horky and outfielder Gavin Ganun. That’s a rare feat, even for a coach as experienced as Tuttle.

“They are not just good baseball players, they are smart and outstanding athletes,” Tuttle said. “The success they are having now is a testament to how hard they have worked. They’ve had good coaching all along. They are intelligent baseball players. They know the game. Their parents have done a great job.”

Wyman said his teammates push each other on the field, court or diamond.

“We’ve been playing together since we were 6 years old,” he said. “We always push each other to do better.”

Ganun burst onto the Lenawee County sports scene in the fall when the ninth-grader was named the Blissfield starting varsity quarterback. All he did was guide the Royals to the third round of the MHSAA Playoffs and lead the county in passing yards. He also was a starter on the varsity basketball team in the winter and an immediate starter for the Royals baseball team. During the regular season, he batted .400 and tied for the county lead in hits, doubles and home runs.

“His dad played for our 1992 team that won a state championship,” Tuttle said of Ganun. “Next year, he’ll probably move into the infield and pitch for us.”

Horky started the season as an outfielder but became the starting catcher as the season went on.

“He worked his way into the catcher’s spot,” Tuttle said. “That really solidified our team.”

Growing up, Wyman mainly played second base. With that position already handled, he had to find a different spot to play on the Royals varsity team.

“I just wanted to play,” he said. “I wanted to work hard so that the coaches couldn’t keep me out of the lineup.”

He found a home at first base. As the season wore on, he also became one of Blissfield’s starting pitchers. In the District Final against Dundee, Wyman allowed just three hits and shut out the Vikings.

“I just wanted to throw strikes,” Wyman said. “I knew my defense was going to pick me up.”

Wyman comes from a strong background in sports. His mother, the former Melissa Stahl, is among the top girls basketball scorers in state history. His sister Kelsey was a Class C Associated Press basketball Player of the Year, and he has a brother on the current Royals baseball team.

Tuttle said the three freshmen all earned their spots in the lineup because of their work ethic in practice.

“It’s always been my philosophy that you earn your playing time in practice,” Tuttle said. “I tell the kids it doesn’t matter what grade you are in or what your name is. If you want to play, you have to earn it in practice.”

Wyman could get another shot to pitch Saturday if the Royals make the Regional Final at Clinton. Ann Arbor Greenhills (18-12) plays Jonesville (21-11-2) at 10 a.m. and the Royals take on Michigan Center (24-7) in the second Regional Semifinal.

Tuttle, who turned 74 on Wednesday, has won seven MHSAA championships during his tenure at Blissfield. He has no plans to leave the game that has meant so much to his life. He entered the season ranked second on the all-time Michigan high school baseball coaching victory list with 1,245. The leader is Grand Ledge’s Pat O’Keefe. A District champion as well, Grand Ledge is 32-3 this season, giving O’Keefe 1,286 wins, 16 more than Tuttle.

“These kids keep me young,” Tuttle said. “This was a pivotal year for us, but we have a great group of parents and I have a great coaching staff. I’m not able to do some of the things I used to be able to do, physically, but I still work with the kids. I can still teach the fundamentals, and I love working with them. I’m not going anywhere.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTO: Blissfield pitcher Ty Wyman winds up during one of his turns on the mound this spring. (Photo courtesy of the Blissfield 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.)