Schoolcraft Hopes Hoops Title Experience Feeds Another Deep Diamond Run

By Pam Shebest
Special for

April 26, 2022

SCHOOLCRAFT — Accompanied by fire trucks and greeted by friends and families, the Schoolcraft boys basketball team arrived back in town last month on a state basketball championship high.

Southwest CorridorBut several athletes did not have much time to celebrate.

Eight of those players are also on the Eagles baseball team, and coach Scott Muffley found his guys a bit behind schedule to start the season.

“I’m very excited for them, but one thing (the extended basketball season) did for us, we’re trying to build our pitch counts up with our pitchers and if we didn’t throw a lot during the wintertime, we’re kinda behind schedule,” he said.

“It does affect what we do on the mound and getting guys the number of reps.”

Two of those hoopsters, Luke Housler and first-team all-stater Tyler DeGroote, are the only seniors on a young baseball squad. Another, Eli DeVisser, is one of only two juniors, with Austin Jones.

“I’ve got some freshmen. I’ve got many, many, many sophomores, like two juniors and two seniors,” Muffley said.

On the plus side, “I’ve got a great group of guys, and they brought the love of the game back for me again.”

DeGroote, Housler and DeVisser were also on the baseball team that made the Division 3 Regional Finals last year in spite of starting the postseason with a losing record. The Eagles lost 4-0 to Pewamo-Westphalia in their Regional Final.

All three athletes said they hope to use that experience plus the hoops success to take the baseball team even farther.

With the Michigan weather impacting the schedule, the Eagles have played just four games so far, posting a 2-2 record after a Monday defeat at Paw Paw.

Schoolcraft baseball“We know how tight-knit the (basketball) team was,” Housler said. “There was a camaraderie with the team.

“I’m hoping to carry that team chemistry over (to baseball) with the eight guys from the basketball team. That’s what it takes to win a championship.”

Switching from the fast-paced basketball competition to baseball was not difficult, Housler said.

“Basketball is fast-paced, but I played baseball my whole life,” he said. “There’s a picture on the wall at my house of me holding a baseball when I was 2 years old.”

DeGroote said that even though a few of the eight did not see minutes in the championship basketball game, they still should help the baseball team based on their hoops experience.

Schoolcraft’s basketball run concluded with a 55-39 win over 2021 Division 3 champion Flint Beecher in the Semifinal, followed by a 59-49 victory over Menominee in the title game at Breslin Center.

“We all know how to win; we all know how to buy into something,” he said. “Maybe some of those kids didn’t get any minutes in the game, but they really helped us out in practice.

“That’s really what helps you go on, the kids who are willing to be there every day, even though they may not get any playing time.”

Muffley, who has coached for more than 20 years, skippered the Three Rivers baseball team before stepping down to spend time with his family.

He was also an MHSAA official and received a 20-year award three years ago, officiating football, baseball, basketball and softball.

His son, Jordyn Muffley, played in the minor leagues with the Tampa Bay Rays organization, and daughter Josie Muffley is the starting shortstop at Florida State. Both played at Portage Central.

“I stopped coaching for about five years to watch my kids grow,” he said. “That’s when I did a lot of officiating.”

Looking at this year’s team, Scott Muffley will rely heavily on returnees DeGroote, Housler and DeVisser to lead the team.

Schoolcraft baseball“All three are starters with the experience from the basketball team and winning a state championship,” Muffley said. “Eli was a sophomore last year and was one of the main contributors as far as batting average.”

DeVisser, a shortstop, agreed winning the basketball championship will help this spring.

“We know what it feels like to make it far into a tournament, so it gives us confidence,” he said. “It helps us once we get further into our season; it helps us play better because we don’t get as nervous because we made it far.”

Housler, who plays second base, is headed next to University of Tennessee, but not as an athlete.

“I just want to be a student,” he said. “It’s going to be weird without sports, but I’m excited. I’m ready to get out of state and go to a warmer area and experience a different culture.”

Muffley said Housler is “a very polite, mild-mannered kid.

“I’m really looking forward to what Luke’s going to do for us as a leader on the team.”

DeGroote, who pitches and plays first base, plans to play basketball and baseball at Division II Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

“Tyler brings a lot of leadership to the team, and he has a lot of athletic ability as well,” Muffley said.

The other five players making the transition from basketball to baseball are all sophomores: Bennett Ellison, Fischer Holmes, Colin Hotrum, Thomas Rutkoskie and Jaden VanderWiere.

Other sophomores are Easton Poulsen and Carsten Svoboda. The team’s freshmen are Gavin Hart, Gavin Knowlton, Ryley Bruner, Nyan Wonders and Ethan Goddard.

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Schoolcraft’s Eli DeVisser awaits a throw with Luke Housler (20) backing him up during Monday’s game against Paw Paw. (Middle) Clockwise from top left: Schoolcraft baseball coach Scott Muffley, Tyler Groote, DeVisser and Housler. (Below) DeGroote stretches to make the play at first. (Action photos by Stephanie Blentlinger/Lingering Memories Photography. Head shots by Pam Shebest.)

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.)