Grandville Backstop Home Again Behind the Plate

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

April 16, 2021

GRANDVILLE – Spencer Verburg understands his position on the baseball diamond isn’t the most glamorous. 

It doesn’t bother the Grandville senior standout one bit. 

In fact, he takes pride in his role as one of the top catchers in the Grand Rapids area.  

“I like to do the dirty work,” said the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Verburg, who recently signed with Central Michigan University. “Not many people want to do that, and everyone wants to be a shortstop or center fielder where you look cool and get the girls.

“I feel like a team can't take it to the next level without a dude behind the plate that is willing to block and get down and dirty to help the pitchers look pretty.” 

Verburg is a defensive stalwart who embraces the opportunity to help his pitching staff. 

“I like receiving because I’m able to stick pitches that other catchers would drag out of the zone,” Verburg said. “It’s such a confidence booster when you stick and steal one and it can change the whole game because your pitcher gains the confidence he needs and then he starts rolling. 

“I’ve always focused on defense because it's hard to find good catchers out there. I feel like so many people have focused on hitting, so I focused on catching where I knew not as many people would focus on.”  

Grandville baseballVerburg’s prowess and maturity was on display in Grandville’s first tournament of the season last weekend. 

Bulldogs head coach Matt Cook was impressed by Verburg’s ability to block out his offensive struggles and remain focused on his catching duties. 

“He didn’t have a great day at the plate and I sent him a text telling him that the way he talked to our younger pitchers, the way he carried himself behind the plate and the way he talked to umpires is going to pay such dividends in the long run,” Cook said. “He didn’t let the other things bother him at all.” 

Verburg is thrilled to be back on the field with his teammates after the pandemic wiped out his junior season. 

Last year was a challenging time for all spring sports athletes in the state.  

“It hit hard because baseball is such a big part of my life,” Verburg said. “I didn’t get to play with my teammates and see them every day. There weren’t any places to work out or throw or hit because so many places were shut down because of COVID.” 

The Bulldogs had just wrapped up tryouts before they found out the season would be put on pause. It eventually turned into a cancellation. 

“There was no way I thought they were going to cancel the season, and we thought we would just wait it out for a couple weeks,” Verburg said. “It felt like it dragged out, and eventually we sensed that we wouldn’t be playing at all.” 

Verburg had mixed emotions because he knew he had another year of high school baseball. 

On the other hand, he knew that wouldn’t be the same for his senior teammates. 

“I felt really bad because I’ve been playing with those guys since I was a freshman, and I’ve been through so much with those guys,” he said. “It was hard to not be able to go out and play that last season with them and know they were not going to enjoy senior night and everything else.” 

“It was heartbreaking for everyone around the state and the country,” Cook added. “Guys like Spencer and others who had been waiting in the wings and they knew they were going to be day-one starters and play every single inning. And then for the season to get canceled ... I know it was really tough on those guys.” 

Cook saw a noticeable difference in his players’ preparation upon learning of their return this spring. 

“They have been so locked in this year, and I think a lot of it is because they lost a year and are not taking anything for granted,” Cook said. “We’ve had our best practices so far this year than we’ve had in my four years here. 

Grandville baseball“Guys are more locked in because of that missed year. They don’t take practice for granted, and they want to be there.” 

Verburg feels blessed to have the opportunity to play in his final season. 

“I’m so thankful because last year it was obvious to everyone that things can be taken away so fast,” Verburg said. “This is the first year I’ve been able to play with all the guys I grew up with since kindergarten. It’s nice to go out and play the game that we love together and just have fun doing it.” 

Verburg has been on the varsity since he was a freshman. As a sophomore, he spent time playing behind then-senior Jake Paganelli. 

The following offseason, playing with his Diamonds travel team, Verburg began to show promise at the plate.   

The combination of defense and hitting helped him earn interest from college scouts. 

“Things just started to click for me at the plate,” Verburg said. “It’s this feeling you have when you step up to the plate and you knew you were not going to strike out. You knew you were going to find a way on base no matter what pitcher was out there and no matter what situation it was.” 

Verburg fit in right away as an incoming freshman on varsity.  

“He was business-like then, and had goals early,” Cook said. “We recognized him as a kid that was only going to work and work and work, It’s rare when you find a freshman that carries himself the way he did. He carried himself like an upperclassman.” 

The Bulldogs possess a lot of potential this year after winning 24 games in 2019. 

“I think we’re being slept on, but we're scrappy,” Verburg said. “I  think we can make a deep run in the tournament.”

Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS: (Top) Grandville catcher Spencer Verburg gets ready for another inning behind the plate during his team’s doubleheader against Grand Ledge earlier this month. (Middle) Verburg signs with Central Michigan in November. (Below) The then-sophomore drives a pitch for the varsity in 2019. (Photos courtesy of the Verburg family and Grandville 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.)