Historic Marsh Field Showcasing Muskegon-Area Baseball Under 'Friday Night Lights'

By Tom Kendra
Special for MHSAA.com

May 3, 2023

Fruitport’s Ryan Bosch took advantage of his moment underneath the “Friday Night Lights.”

West MichiganBosch, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, lined a two-out, bases-loaded single up the middle in the seventh inning Friday night to drive in two runs and the tie the score, 5-5. The Trojans didn’t let up, eventually scoring 10 runs in the top of the seventh for a 10-5 win over rival Muskegon Reeths-Puffer at historic Marsh Field in downtown Muskegon.

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” said Bosch, a dominating pitcher who verbally committed to the University of Michigan last month.

“It makes it more special doing it here at this field where so many pros and college players have come through.”

Fruitport’s thrilling comeback was just the latest in thousands of baseball games played at Marsh Field over the past 107 years, dating to 1916.

Marsh Field, the current home of the Muskegon Clippers of the Great Lakes Summer College League, has been the home of two minor league teams (the original Clippers and the Reds), the Muskegon Lassies of the All-American Girls Professional League and a “who’s who” of baseball greats from Harry Heilman to Grover Cleveland Alexander to Satchel Paige.

Reeths-Puffer third baseman Trent Reichert goes for the ball as a Fruitport baserunner closes in during Fruitport's seventh-inning rally in the 10-5 victory. The seven-week “Friday Night Lights” – featuring two West Michigan high school teams each spring Friday – was the brainchild of Clippers general manager Walt Gawkowski as a way to share the refurbished stadium with the community and provide a bigger stage for local high school baseball.

“High school baseball flies under the radar and doesn’t get near the attention of basketball or football,” said Gawkowski, a longtime Muskegon-area prep baseball coach who, along with his brother Pete, founded the new Clippers organization six years ago.

“We have the facility, and this is a way to promote baseball. It has been very well-received, and the crowds have been outstanding.”

Fruitport topped Ludington 15-0 in this year’s first edition of Friday Night Lights on April 14, followed by Central Montcalm’s 7-5 win over Greenville on April 21.

Remaining games in the series are Fremont vs. Hesperia (May 5), Muskegon Catholic Central vs. Muskegon Western Michigan Christian (May 12), North Muskegon vs. Muskegon Oakridge (May 19) and Muskegon Mona Shores vs. Grandville (May 26).

The latest edition of the series, played on a mild and calm Friday night, featured a crowd of about 400 who were treated to a pitchers’ duel between Reeths-Puffer’s Brayden Mitchelson and Fruitport’s Trevor Rusnak.

Puffer held a slim 1-0 lead for much of the game, before seemingly putting it away with four runs in the bottom of the sixth inning. First baseman David Wilhelm had the big hit with a two-run single.

A comeback seemed highly unlikely, with the bottom of Fruitport’s lineup leading off in the top of the seventh. But the Trojans loaded the bases on a hit batter, a single and a walk, then plated runs on a pair of walks and a sacrifice fly by Braxton Ward.

Reeths-Puffer's dugout keeps a close eye on the action, Bosch heads back to his team’s dugout, and a good-sized crowd stands for the national anthem. That set the stage for Bosch’s game-tying single, which ignited the Trojans’ dugout and crowd. Bosch, a physically intimidating left-hander who throws close to 90 mph, did not pitch in Friday’s game.

Fruitport pulled away on a run-scoring single by Andrew Spyke and a two-run triple by Jax Flynn.

The Marsh Field crowd was then treated to a local Michael Jackson impersonator doing a dance to “Billie Jean,” after which Fruitport coach Nick Reed received a surprise ice bath following the comeback – two things you don’t often see at a regular-season high school baseball game.

“We just tried to keep the energy up and stay positive,” said Bosch as he and his teammates celebrated on the field after the game.

“Once we got the bats going a little bit and got some guys on base, you could feel things turning. It was a lot of fun.”

Fruitport and Puffer, former rivals in the Seaway Conference who now compete in different divisions of the Ottawa-Kent Conference, could meet again in this weekend’s Greater Muskegon Athletic Association county tournament. Mona Shores is the defending GMAA champion.

Tom KendraTom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Fruitport 6-foot-8 sophomore Ryan Bosch, who recently committed to the University of Michigan as a pitcher, warms up at Muskegon's historic Marsh Field before a game in the "Friday Night Lights" series April 28. (Middle) Reeths-Puffer third baseman Trent Reichert goes for the ball as a Fruitport baserunner closes in during Fruitport's seventh-inning rally in the 10-5 victory. (Below, clockwise from top left) Reeths-Puffer's dugout keeps a close eye on the action, Bosch heads back to his team’s dugout, and a good-sized crowd stands for the national anthem. (Photos by Joe Lane.)

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.)