Small Ball, Brawley Come Up Big in Repeat

June 16, 2018

By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING – Never underestimate the importance of defense – especially when it comes down to one final game to decide it all.

Stevensville Lakeshore played solid defense and took advantage of four Saginaw Swan Valley errors, and enjoyed a stellar pitching performance by senior Joel Brawley to claim a 6-3 victory in Saturday’s MHSAA Division 2 Final.

The championship was the Lancers’ second straight, making them the first to repeat at the Finals level of the tournament since Grand Rapids Christian in 2012-13.

“I always tell (my team), good teams get to the final four, great teams win it,” said Lakeshore head coach Mark Nate, whose team beat Bay City John Glenn in the 2017 title game. “That’s how we lived it last year, and we weren’t just happy to get here. Last year, we wanted to win it, and we did.

“This year, the whole talk was – for 365 days – repeat, repeat and we had a long way to go. The way we were playing in April, you would have never believed we’d be standing here now.”

Lakeshore’s game is built around pressuring its opponents by playing small ball. It worked right from the start Saturday. It didn’t take the Lancers long to take advantage of Swan Valley’s struggling defense, as they struck twice in the top of the first inning with a pair of runs on throwing errors.

Senior Sean Branch got things started with a base hit to center field. After stealing second, he moved to third on an infield single by senior Bray Plomb, then scored on an overthrow to first base. On the next play, junior Cam Dalrymple beat out a bunt to third base, and courtesy runner Ryan Soper scored on a poor throw to first, giving his team a 2-0 lead.

Lakeshore (27-14) would add two more runs in the fourth inning, again aided by the Vikings’ defense. Sophomore Oli Carmody walked to start the inning, stole second base and scored on a bunt single by Brawley when the throw to first sailed into foul territory. Brawley’s courtesy runner, junior Kyle Wojahn, would later score on a fielder’s choice by Branch to up the lead to 4-0.

“We lost four good (players) from last year, but we gained three to four good ones. And once they started learning our game, it started to click for us,” Nate said. “At the end of the day, if you stick with the plan, you can produce a lot of runs by not really even hitting the ball, (using) speed and small ball. It’s a huge part of Lakeshore baseball.”

The Lancers capped off their scoring with two runs in the fifth. Carmody walked and moved to second on a single by junior Jared Evans. Brawley then hit a grounder to short, but the throw pulled the first baseman off the bag, allowing Carmody to score. Senior Logan Morrow then drove in Evans with a bloop single to make it 6-0.

Swan Valley (33-9-3) scored a run in the bottom of the fifth inning thanks to three singles, two that didn’t leave the infield. Junior Conner Sika had a one-out single to get things started. With two outs, senior Cameron Schroeder and sophomore Brian Ross pieced together back-to-back infield hits.

Sophomore Mitchell Jebb then hit a grounder to third, but the throw pulled the first baseman off the bag, allowing Sika to score the Vikings’ first run of the game.

Swan Valley would add two more in the bottom of the seventh on a two-run double by sophomore Easton Goldensoph, which plated sophomores Victor Mancini and Brian Ross.

Brawley went 6? innings on the mound, scattering 10 hits before being pulled due to pitch count. Carmody came in and got the last out to end the game.

“There’s nothing like it, to go back-to-back,” said Brawley, whose cousin Connor pitched 7? scoreless innings Thursday, helping his team to a 3-0 shutout victory over Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in a Semifinal game. “This team has worked so hard, and we feel like we deserve it. I felt like this was just another game; that’s how you’ve got to think of it. I had to go out there and do my job and let the defense work, and good things will happen.”

Connor Brawley, Evans and Morrow each collected a pair of hits in their team’s victory.

Ross, one of eight sophomores on Swan Valley’s roster, took the loss on the mound. He pitched 3? innings, allowing six hits and three earned runs while striking out four.

“Hey, we had a great year. That’s a very good team,” Swan Valley coach Craig Leddy said. “We’re young. I know it’s tough to get back here, but we’ve got all the kids to get back here. Our No. 1 is a freshman, our No. 2 is a junior and our No. 3 is a sophomore. We’ve just got to play clean ball like we did all year. You can’t play in a championship game and make mistakes, and we made mistakes.”

Click for the full box score.

VIDEO: Logan Morrow had two hits, including this RBI single in the fifth inning for Stevensville Lakeshore.

PHOTOS: (Top) Stevensville Lakeshore’s Joel Brawley delivers a pitch during Saturday’s Division 2 Final at McLane Stadium. (Middle) Swan Valley’s Easton Goldensoph stretches to beat a throw to first base.

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.)