Veteran St Francis Earns Top Billing

May 19, 2017

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

TRAVERSE CITY – Tom Passinault does not like to put unnecessary pressure on his Traverse City St. Francis baseball team.

So, when his team took over the No. 1 ranking in the Division 3 baseball coaches poll, he made it more of a lighthearted moment.

“We were joking when we got ranked No. 1,” Passinault said. “We said, ‘That honor is usually reserved for the football team.’”

But now, two weeks away from the start of the MHSAA Tournament, the 27-2 Gladiators are in that envious position.

And it’s no accident.

St. Francis returned its entire starting lineup from last season’s 25-11 squad. Plus, the Gladiators added junior pitcher/first baseman Joey Muzljakovich, who tore a knee ligament in football and missed last season; and second baseman Gabe Callery, who ran track last spring.

“We expected to be a good team,” junior catcher Cooper Peterson said. “We’re doing really well, even better than I thought.”

The only setbacks have been to Division 1 No. 15 Brownstown Woodhaven and Muskegon Mona Shores. The 27 wins are a school record.

Passinault is in his fourth season as head coach – and the Gladiators are closing in on a fourth consecutive Lake Michigan Conference title.

The keys to success? Pitching and defense.

“In basketball, you talk about how you can always play good defense because you’re not always going to shoot well,” Passinault said. “We (apply) that to baseball. You can always pitch and play defense because your hitting is going to be sporadic at times, although we’ve been pretty successful one through nine hitting the ball.”

St. Francis pitchers sport a 1.45 earned run average. Seven pitchers have earned wins. Muzljakovich is the ace. He’s 7-0 with a 0.58 ERA and has struck out 67 hitters in 36 innings. Junior lefthander Casey Peterson is 5-0 and has yet to allow an earned run. He separated a shoulder in the Mona Shores game, missed about three weeks, but has returned to action. Peterson has 42 strikeouts in 24 innings. Sophomore Keaton Peck is 4-1 with a 2.05 ERA, while senior Connor Sweet is 3-1 with a 1.48 ERA.

“First of all, there’s great depth,” pitching coach Mike Muzljakovich said. “We have four guys that most years we would gladly call our No. 1.”

Mike Muzljakovich believes Joey Muzljakovich and Casey Peterson will pitch in college. In addition to Joey Muzljakovich’s injury last season, Peterson missed time with elbow issues. Sweet stepped up and won 10 games.

Now, everyone is healthy. And with the MHSAA implementing pitch count limits, that depth is a blessing.

“When the pitching limitations came out, we felt like it would be to our advantage because we have more depth than most teams,” Mike Muzljakovich said. “That won’t always be true, but we’re going to ride it for the next three or four years.”

When St. Francis has needed an extra arm, particularly for weekend tournaments, Passinault has called up Josh Bradfield from the JV. He’s 4-0 with a 1.75 ERA.

“Normally, he would be solidly in our rotation,” Mike Muzljakovich said.

What impresses Passinault the most is the command.

“Our strikeout (207) to walk (56) ratio is very impressive,” he said. “We walk (an opposing batter) about every 3.2 innings.”

That’s not lost on the players in the field.

“We have phenomenal pitching,” sophomore centerfielder Danny Passinault said. “Our pitchers throw strikes, and our defense makes plays.”

The Gladiators are especially strong up the middle with Peterson behind the plate, Peck at shortstop, Callery at second and Passinault in center.

“Watching (Passinault) track a baseball is the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Peterson said.

Tom Passinault notes that he has a “really good defensive team,” and he’s quick to praise his other regulars, including Sweet at third, Muzljakovich at first, senior Peter McAndrews in left and sophomore Artie Dutmers in right

“As hard as our pitchers throw, (Dutmers) gets a lot of action,” Passinault said.

Assistant coach Brad Peterson works with the infielders.

The Gladiators are also hitting .338 as a team. The leaders include Muzljakovich (.414), Sweet (.405), Peck (.395), McAndrews (.392) and Cooper Peterson, junior Matt Westman and sophomore Nathan Schmuckal (all at .333). Muzljakovich leads the team with 25 RBI.

“We’re getting clutch hits at the right time and scoring runs when we need to,” Passinault said.

A year ago, the Gladiators were surprised in the District by Lake City.

“Losing to Lake City did not sit well with us,” Cooper Peterson said. “It’s been a major motivator this whole year.”

“We had one of those games you want to avoid,” Passinault added. “In the tournament, it’s one (loss) and done.”

Passinault called the 2016 season a “unique year” because he did not have a senior.

“It made last year tough leadership-wise,” he said. “But the good thing is we brought a bunch of players back that had experience.”

Callery, who had played baseball previously, decided to come back after running track. He’s one of four seniors on this year’s roster.

“I missed it,” he said. “It’s fun being around these guys. Plus, I knew we had a chance to be really good.”

Passinault, who coached Grand Rapids Catholic Central to the Division 4 Football Final in 2005 and then turned around the Traverse City Central football program before stepping down after the 2014 campaign, said the Gladiators have “high goals” as the postseason nears. But he knows there will be difficult challenges ahead.

“One of the things we know we’ll have to do is beat a very good pitcher,” he said. “We challenge the kids – what can you do when we face that good pitcher? Not everybody is going to drive the ball in the gap. Is it stealing bases? Is it making a play? We’re really trying to get the kids to understand what they can do to make us better.”

It’s already been a good year for the Passinaults. Tom and Teresa’s oldest son, Noah, a senior at St. Francis, received a scholarship and will attend Notre Dame, Tom’s alma mater. Noah, who’s involved in band and choir, is thinking of trying out for the marching band, his father said.

“I told my wife, ‘I knew I’d have a son playing in that football stadium,’” Tom Passinault said. “I thought he might be a running back, but he’s a clarinet. It’s awesome. He’s going (to Notre Dame) for the right reasons. He likes math and philosophy and he made it into their honors college, which is quite a feat.”

As a sophomore, Danny Passinault has been a primetime varsity player in football, basketball and baseball. He was the quarterback on the 11-1 football team that lost a heartbreaker to eventual champion Pewamo-Westphalia in the Regional Final.

The Passinaults’ daughter, Gwyneth, a seventh-grader, just set the school record in the 70-meter dash.

“It’s been quite a spring,” Passinault said.

And it looks like it could get even better. The Gladiators will host the baseball District.

“We stress to the kids, that no matter what happens, it’s been a good year,” Passinault said. “We don’t want to put too much pressure on the end result. But we do have high goals. We want to go as far as we can.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Traverse City St. Francis senior Conner Sweet prepares to deliver a pitch during a game this season. (Middle) Senior Gabe Callery stretches his lead off first base. (Below) Peter McAndrews (3) holds an Elk Rapids runner close to first base. (Photos by Toni Sweet.)

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.)