Orchard Lake St. Mary's Passes Homer for State's Record Winning Streak

By Keith Dunlap
Special for MHSAA.com

April 17, 2023

It initially might be an absurd notion, but this year’s Orchard Lake St. Mary’s baseball team was able to enter this season with a legitimate chip on its collective shoulder.

Greater DetroitYes, the Eaglets began practice last month having won three straight MHSAA Finals championships (Division 2 titles in 2019 and 2021 and the Division 1 title last year surrounding the canceled 2020 season) and set a state record for wins in a season last year in finishing 44-0.

But the Eaglets graduated some unreal talent from that squad, including four players contributing to Division I college baseball programs this spring (Jack Crighton at Clemson, Ike Irish at Auburn, Nolan Schubert at Oklahoma State and Jake Dresselhouse at Michigan State) and another in pitcher Brock Porter, a top prospect in the Texas Rangers farm system after being taking in the fourth round of last summer’s MLB Draft and inking for signing bonus of $3.7 million.

So going into this year, there was a definite hunger and drive for the returning players to show the rest of the state there wouldn’t be any letup in the program despite the roster attrition.

“We have a lot of new guys who didn’t get an opportunity really last year because of how good our roster was,” said senior second baseman Ryan McKay, a co-captain who has committed to play at Michigan State. “But now they are filling in their shoes amazingly. There are a lot of names people don’t know, and those are the guys helping us win these games.”

Proof of St. Mary’s still excelling and simply reloading certainly came over the weekend in Ohio.

With a win over Grove City in suburban Columbus on Saturday, the Eaglets won their 76th straight game, breaking the state’s all-time record consecutive victories set by Homer during the 2004 and 2005 seasons.

St. Mary’s (11-0) then added a win over Milford (Ohio) to make it 77 wins a row, and is now 12 shy of tying the national record of 89 set by Portsmouth (N.H.) High School in 2012.

Given it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore the streak and attention that’s coming with it, breaking the state record made for a festive bus ride home from Ohio on Saturday.

“The thing about it is their commitment to it and to get up for every single game over the course of three seasons,” St. Mary’s head coach Matt Petry said. “That says a lot about our players, how well prepared they are and how serious they take the game. That’s not easy to get up for every single game. Especially knowing you are going to get everyone’s best efforts because they want to be the ones who break the streak.”

There were some close calls en route to this weekend’s accomplishment.

St. Mary’s earned a 5-4 win over Howell on March 26, a 1-0 win over Detroit Catholic Central on March 30, and then a 1-0 win in nine innings last Wednesday against Walsh Jesuit in Ohio.

“There have been close games, but if you want to go far in sports, you have to love those big games,” McKay said. “The nerves are coming, but at the same time, you love it.”

Last year’s seniors were well-known across the state before the season even began. But even after their graduation, there remains loads of talent on the St. Mary’s roster and plenty of time for this group to create similar buzz.

In addition to McKay and top pitcher Aidan Donovan heading to Michigan State, senior shortstop Blake Grimmer is committed to Tennessee, senior SS/P Jasen Oliver is committed to Indiana, and junior Parker Brzustewicz has committed to Notre Dame to headline another roster full of future college players.

Now, the hard part will be continuing to stay focused amidst attention that will undoubtedly increase as the Eaglets pursue the national record.

Fortunately, it won’t be hard for St. Mary’s to get up for its next action Wednesday because it is hosting archrival Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice for a doubleheader.

Odds are St. Mary’s will lose a game at some point. But until then, it will bask in the glow of a ride never seen before in state history.

“It’s definitely in the back of our minds,” McKay said. “But every game we just go out with the same idea, plan and basically play baseball at the end of the day.”

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTO Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Ciaran Caughey (12) welcomes Jake Dresselhouse after the latter scored during last season’s Semifinal win over Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern.

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.)