Unexpected Eagles Finish Repeat Run

June 15, 2013

By Andy Sneddon
Special to Second Half

BATTLE CREEK – There’s a big difference between a mere thrower and pitcher.

Austin Batka epitomized Saturday what it means to be the latter.

Batka took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before settling for a two-hitter as Grand Rapids Christian held on to beat Richmond, 3-0, in the MHSAA Division 2 championship game at C.O. Brown Stadium.

It was the second consecutive title for the Eagles, who took a markedly different path than in 2012.

Saturday’s win capped a remarkable run for Grand Rapids Christian, which was 6-12 at one point this season and entered the MHSAA tournament 12-15. The Eagles reeled off seven consecutive wins to finish 19-15. They went 36-5 a year ago, and were 30-8 in 2010, when they were the MHSAA runner-up.

“I don’t know if you think that way,” Christian coach Brent Gates said when asked if he was surprised his team found itself back in Battle Creek after the way it started the year. “I knew we had ability, but it was a young team so you really didn’t know what they were going to become.

“What we saw over the course of that (early-to-midseason) time is every practice, the three-hour practices – they wanted to be there, they wanted to get better, and you just saw it become a little bit smoother. We’ve got some good athletes on the team, and they put the work in to get here.”

Batka, a junior left-hander, tamed a Richmond (34-5) team making its first-ever appearance in Battle Creek.

He mixed his breaking ball in effectively enough to keep the Blue Devils on their heels and, more importantly, off the bases. He struck out eight and walked two and at one point set down 11 consecutive Blue Devils.

“I wasn’t necessarily overpowering,” said Batka, who completed a one-week, three-game stretch, including Regional and Quarterfinal victories, during which he allowed a combined five hits. “I’ve been finding my curveball, so I don’t have to throw my fastball as hard.”

Batka’s teammates gave him all the support he would need when cleanup man Tyler Sigler tripled leading off the second inning. He scored on Tyler Boyd’s bunt.

The Eagles used two walks, a hit batsman, a wild pitch, and a fielder’s choice to scratch out another run in the fifth inning. Batka then helped himself when he drove in the game’s third and final run with a sacrifice fly in the sixth.

Though Batka had a three-run cushion – and his no-hitter still intact – to start the seventh, he wasn’t out of the woods.

Ryan Boyd led off the bottom of the final frame with a looping liner to shallow center field to spoil the no-hit bid.

Batka said he didn’t realize the significance of that turn of events until Gates made his way to the mound.

“He told me ‘It doesn’t matter; it’s still going to be a complete game,’ Batka said, “and I looked up at the scoreboard and there’s the ‘1’ on the hit.”

A strikeout, an infield single, a fielder’s choice forceout, and an error left the bases loaded with two out. Batka got the final out on a chopper back to the mound.

“He’s thrown a lot of innings here in the last week,” Gates said. “He’s had three starts in less than a week. He’s a consistent 85-87 (mph) kid with a consistent curveball. He strikes out a lot of kids. Today, he just battled. … He didn’t have probably his best stuff, but he gutted through it. He knows how to pitch.”

Click for a full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids Christian baseball players pile onto the pitcher’s mound and each other after clinching their second straight MHSAA championship. (Middle) Eagles junior Austin Batka threw a complete game to earn the victory.  (Click to see more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)