Glad to Bring Baseball Back to Gladstone

May 9, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Blake Ballard looked out at the snow covering Gladstone last month and figured it would never melt. When he and his teammates finally played in their first tournament of the season April 20, the temperature couldn’t have broken 30 degrees.

It’s the annual plight of a high school baseball player. And Ballard and teammates are glad to enjoy it for the first time – as members of Gladstone’s first high school baseball team since 1959.

The Braves made their re-debut last month thanks to a full community effort that included deft advising from the eventual coach, creative thinking by the administration and school board and enthusiastic fundraising by parents and supporters – none of which is lost on a group of athletes who are off to a 10-3 start heading into Thursday’s doubleheader against Escanaba.

“Once we figured out it was going to happen, we were excited. Kids started practicing a lot,” said Ballard, one of the team’s two seniors. “It’s going to be pretty sweet later on. Whoever didn’t (play) will regret it.”

Gladstone has roughly 5,000 residents, and baseball has remained a staple of the community over the last half century – just not as the high school level.

Children grow up playing in the local little league and on travel teams, and then graduate to American Legion ball when they are older. But for any number of reasons – including weather-related difficulties in scheduling, low interest or lack of facilities – only 19 Upper Peninsula MHSAA high schools offer baseball. 

At Gladstone, boys instead played and can continue to choose from track and field, golf and tennis during the spring. Ballard, for example, was a golfer before getting his chance on the diamond this year. 

A football and basketball player too, he often was asked why his school didn't play baseball – and really had no idea how to answer.

Community members had campaigned for baseball in the past, said athletic director Matt Houle. He’s worked at Gladstone for more than 30 years, and has seen four or five strong pushes over the last decade alone.  

But those efforts faced two challenges. The first was funding – all programs at Gladstone previously were funded by the school, but baseball if added would have to raise its own money. And the school also wanted to make sure to continue complying with Title IX, which meant finding more opportunities for female students as well if a baseball team was added for the boys. (Gladstone already has a softball program, and it’s one of the state’s best of the last decade with two MHSAA titles and a runner-up finish last season in Division 3.)

Enter former Escanaba baseball coach Don Lauscher.

He and two others keyed a similar effort that led to Escanaba High School creating a baseball program in 2002, and he also assisted Marquette when it added baseball four seasons ago. He had coached Gladstone Legion teams in 2005 and 2006 and Escanaba's varsity to a 130-27 record from 2007-11, but wasn't looking to become coach of a new program – he just hoped to lend his knowledge on getting it started.

Rallying the community was the easy part. And to keep with Title IX, Gladstone added self-funded co-ed swimming and bowling programs.

Supporters convinced the school board they could fund the program – and already have the team two years ahead on its expected financial obligations thanks to special events but also additional donations from local foundations and independently by other members of the community.

“Our community has always been supportive of our athletic teams. And being a town looked upon as a strong baseball/softball program, it was inevitable it would happen,” Houle said.

“People kept coming up and saying, ‘Congratulations Coach. We’re really behind you,’” Lauscher said of a recent breakfast fundraiser. “It’s amazing.”

The community is getting its money’s worth.

Ironically, an uncle of Lauscher's wife played on that 1959 Gladstone team. That didn't play into his taking over as coach, but he had other reasons. 

Perhaps most of all, Lauscher missed teaching the game. He's coached it at just about every youth level and attended clinics as far away as Georgia and Louisiana, and enjoys passing on what he's learned. And life events fell into play to allow the opportunity to be assisted by his son Kurt and nephew B.J.; both played at Grand Rapids Community College and Kurt also pitched at Central Michigan University.

Again, because of the summer programs, Lauscher didn’t start completely from scratch. A core group including Ballard, juniors Christian Groleau, Christian Tackman, Sam Pouliot and sophomore Justin Jurek gave the Braves a quality pitching staff and some high school-comparable experience. Still, the team didn't have a catcher when practice began and fundamentals have been the focus as the coaches bring everyone up to speed. 

As a whole, the 14-player roster has caught on quickly.

“Seeing the things these kids didn't know to where they are now, I’m very surprised where they are now,” Don Lauscher said.

The team plays at its local Legion field, which has lights and is only about a quarter-mile from the school. The Braves hosted their first “Parents Night” last week and truly are inclusive of the full student body with Lucas LaCosse joining Ballard as the seniors, followed by five juniors, four sophomores and two freshmen.

Gladstone’s other spring sports haven’t lost out much, if at all. The track and field team has 41 athletes and the golf team has 16; the tennis team is down to 11, but graduated a large senior class last season.

More Upper Peninsula schools are talking about adding baseball and softball, Houle said; Hancock softball played its first games ever Wednesday. Schools looking to get a program together would be wise to follow Gladstone’s road map.

“There is so much enthusiasm for it right now,” Houle said. “Just being at the diamond around kids I know so well, to see in their faces the excitement ... I’m very honored. There’s a great sense of pride among these kids.”

After the team's first four dates were canceled, Ballard threw the first game of Gladstone High's modern history.

“It was weird. (But) everyone liked it," he said. "It seemed like a big difference, playing for our school now."

PHOTOS: (Top) Christian Tackman (10) prepares to throw to first base while shortstop Blake Ballard follows behind during a game this spring. (Middle) Gladstone catcher Justin Jurek looks toward the dugout for a signal. (Photos courtesy of Lori Jurek). 

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.)