Still 'Loose' Swan Valley Loaded Again As Well

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

April 3, 2019

Mitch Jebb and his teammates on the Saginaw Swan Valley baseball team had plenty of fun a year ago as they made their run to the MHSAA Division 2 Final. 

The young Vikings surprised plenty of people with their runner-up finish, and a crucial part of that was how loose the team played. Even with a larger target now on their back, don’t expect them to tighten up. 

“If you come to one of our games, we’re always loose,” said Jebb, a junior shortstop who earned all-state first-team honors as a sophomore. “We’re just out there having fun, and why would you play baseball if you’re not having fun? That’s how we look at things – play your game, but have fun doing it. This year, we’re probably more loose than we were last year.” 

Swan Valley is still plenty young, with a roster comprised mostly of juniors and sophomores, but another deep postseason run wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The Vikings were ranked No. 6 in Division 2 in the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association preseason rankings, and they opened the season Tuesday with a pair of mercy-rule victories (13-0 and 11-0, both in five innings) at Chesaning.  

“I think we surprised quite a few people because we were so young and they had never heard of us before,” Swan Valley coach Craig Leddy said. “They were just playing and winning, and they were loose. That’s not going to happen this year. People have us on the radar.” 

The runner-up finish is likely the biggest reason the Vikings are on the radar, but it also doesn’t hurt to have three players on the roster who have committed to Big Ten baseball programs – none of whom are seniors. 

Jebb and classmate Brian Ross, a 6-foot-8 pitcher, have committed to Michigan State, while sophomore Avery Goldensoph, a 6-foot-2 pitcher, is committed to Michigan. Goldensoph, a first-team all-state selection as a freshman, opened the season by throwing a no-hitter against Chesaning. 

“I knew the group coming, and we have some more kids coming next year as sophomores, so I’m excited about what we have,” said Leddy, who was a longtime assistant before taking over the Swan Valley program a year ago. “This is a special group that’s played a lot of travel ball, and that’s huge.” 

There’s plenty of quality depth to go along with those stars, both in the lineup and the pitching rotation. Junior infielder Victor Mancini had 46 RBI through the team’s first 42 games a year ago, while junior catcher Easton Goldensoph had nine doubles and 26 RBI. Senior pitcher Conner Sika was the team leader in earned-run average, coming in at 0.51 while striking out 53 and allowing 26 hits and nine walks in 54 2/3 innings. He was superb on opening night, allowing just one hit in his shutout victory against Chesaning. 

“I think we can do it this year,” Avery Goldensoph said of making another deep run. “We’ve got me, Brian and Conner Sika who pitched (in the opening series), he’s really good. Our lineup put up 13 runs and 11 runs, that’s a great start.” 

With a tough Tri-Valley Conference Central schedule ahead, the games figure to get more difficult. But the Vikings view that challenge as a good way to prepare for the postseason, and invite the daily pressure playing in that league brings. 

Because even as they try to avoid it, the pressure of greater expectations is a reality they have to face. 

“I think we have a really good team, in my opinion,” Ross said. “Last year we were kind of going after everybody, and now we’re being looked at like they want us. So I would say it’s a little more pressure, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.” 

The best way to handle any pressure that may seep in? By going back to what worked so well a year ago – staying loose. That starts with the coaching staff. 

“We’re a little more relaxed; we’re not screaming and hollering,” Leddy said about his staff, which includes assistants Mark Jebb and David Finzel, as well as pitching coaches Chris and Nick Sarmiento. “I remember what it was like when I was a young kid; the last thing you wanted was a coach kicking you in the (behind) all the time. You want someone encouraging you to be a better person and a better ballplayer. I’m blessed to have some great coaches on staff that know a lot about baseball and care about the kids.” 

The attitude of the coaches has certainly gotten through to the players. 

“What happens, happens, right?” Mitch Jebb said. “If we win, we win. The goal is to win, but it’s not like Coach is saying, ‘You better win a state championship.’ We’re all playing the game we love, and it’s fun. It’s fun playing. If we can win, we want to win – you always want to win. But the overall picture is to go out there and play your game and have fun.” 

Paul 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) Swan Valley’s Victor Mancini drives a pitch during last season’s Division 2 championship game against Stevensville Lakeshore. (Middle) Shortstop Mitch Jebb fires a throw to first.

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.)