Low Numbers Lead Softball Foursome to Bolster Bellaire Baseball

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

April 22, 2022

Things were pretty straight forward last spring for Bella Huffman, Karysn Fischer, Alex Dawson and Brooklynn Clark.

Huffman played third base the Bellaire Eagles. Fisher was a designated hitter and outfielder. Dawson regularly played outfield and catcher, and Clark handled second base.

Huffman is senior now. Fisher is a junior. Dawson and Clark are sophomores.  They were playing for the Eagles softball team. Today, they are members of the Eagles baseball team. Small numbers forced the cancellation of girls softball for this spring. 

Hesitant, maybe at first, the four student-athletes made the leap to baseball.

“This is a slightly unique situation, and I am very proud of the girls for stepping out of their comfort zone to help the baseball team,” said Brad Fischer, Bellaire’s athletic director.  “Unfortunately, the numbers were just not there to support a softball team.

“When we had to make the tough call to cancel our softball season, we told the girls that they are more than welcome to join the baseball team – and we are happy that a few chose to do so.”

The girls played their first game Thursday at Pellston for first-year coach Chris Bearup after a handful of games were lost to spring weather complications. All four got playing time.

The girls, and athletic director, credited the coaches for the smooth transition to the baseball field.

“Coach Bearup has done a great job of getting the girls comfortable and making sure they know they are part of the team and have every opportunity that the boys do,” said Fischer, also Karsyn’s father. “His leadership has been tremendous. 

“We are fortunate to have him.”

The girls started to become very comfortable with baseball during a meeting after the first practice with Bearup and assistant coach Al Balko.

Bellaire baseball“They were worried about the boys picking on us and treating us like … we weren’t going to be as good as them,” recalled Clark of the post-practice meeting. “Now they’re being more incorporative.

“They are really trying to make us feel we’re at home, and that we’re welcome,” she continued.  “They’re giving us a chance to try everything.”

Huffman has dabbled with pitching, and that may work out. It may be a battery with Dawson in the catching position.

“We all got to practice (pitching),” Karysn said. “Alex was in her catching gear, and we pitched.

“Bella was pretty good at it naturally.”

The girls were confident going into Thursday’s season opener. Their eyes are now opened wider as a result, and they are better prepared to compete as they head to Central Lake on Monday. Huffman, Dawson and Clark all got their first at bats out of the way.

“It was a little nerve racking,” Huffman said.

Dawson was in the starting line-up for the first game. She experienced running the 90-foot bases, after being used to the 60-foot base distances in softball.

“You run your little heart out,” she said. “I didn’t make it there, but I ran."

Bellaire baseballBellaire lost 9-1 and 11-0 to Pellston, which had already played two games this year.

The girls are coming into baseball with slightly different expectations for themselves as individual players. All plan to try working harder than the boys.

“I went into this season with high expectations for myself because I knew as a girl on the baseball team I had to work harder than any of the boys to try to prove how good I am or how good I am possibly going to be,” Clark noted. “I think speaking for all the girls, we do.”

Numbers also are low for the baseball team. There are 14 on the roster. The tough result of no softball may have saved the baseball season.

And the senior boys are down to their last swing for a District championship. The boys in the Class of 2022 have yet to win a District in any sport. Cole Robinson is among the seniors seeking that first title.

Robinson had his sophomore baseball season cancelled by the pandemic. His football teams saw limited success. The Eagles boys basketball team made substantial improvements especially this past season, but lost its District opener. 

Robinson has carried on since losing his father and coach Brock Robinson in April 2020. His dad served as the assistant baseball coach and head football coach for the Eagles before his unexpected death at the age of 54.

The girls would have been cheering for him to get his first District title. But now they plan to help him win one with their play on the diamond.

“We love Cole,” together they exclaimed.

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) A foursome of past Bellaire softball players, from left Alex Dawson, Bella Huffman, Karsyn Fischer and Brooklynn Clark, take a photo during their baseball debuts this week. (Middle) Brooklynn Clark stands in at the plate against Pellston. (Below) Karysn Fischer plays right field for the Eagles. (Top photo by Julie Clark, action photos by Kendall Fischer.) 

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.)