West Michigan Rules Division 1 Semis

June 13, 2019

By Matt Schoch
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING – Luke McLean looked right at home Thursday at Michigan State’s McLane Baseball Stadium.

The Rockford High School sophomore scored the winning run with aggressive base running, also securing for himself the pitching victory in a 3-2 Division 1 Semifinal against Macomb Dakota in eight innings of steady rain.

“It’s awesome – an awesome atmosphere, an awesome field,” McLean said. “It’s the end (Saturday). We’ve just got to clutch it out at the end.”

Rockford (28-9) will play Portage Northern at 9 a.m. Saturday for its first championship since 2011.

McLean threw two scoreless innings in relief, setting down six straight batters after allowing a leadoff double to Dakota’s Patrick Merolla in the seventh inning.

Junior catcher Jeff Reseigh had two hits to lead the offense for Dakota (21-17-1). Set up by teammate Greg Guzik’s double, Reseigh’s sixth-inning single through the box scored a pair of runs and gave his team a 2-1 lead.

Down late, Rockford coach Matt Vriesenga said he reminded the Rams about their resiliency, as the team already had won two games in the eighth inning during the tournament.

“I saw our guys deflated a little bit. I just wanted to remind them that we’ve been there before,” Vriesenga said. “Three weeks ago, I did not see this happening. We were a good team, but I did not see this happening.

“But they proved me wrong. We’ve been coming to practice, working on the little things all year long.

“It’s a super special team, and I’m really excited for them.”

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Rockford pinch-hitter Isaac Toole hit a two-out single and advanced to second base on a wild pitch. Alex Miller then hit an RBI single to left field to tie the score at 2-2.

Senior catcher Cody Sterkenburg started the game-winning Rockford rally in the eighth with a single.  McLean ripped a single to move him to second, and a fielder’s choice on a Miller grounder set up the winning play.

With two outs, junior Owen Cairns hit a dribbler to third base, picked up but thrown wide to first base, dragging the Dakota fielder off the bag as Cairns reached safely.

Meanwhile, McLean alertly headed home to send Rockford to Saturday’s Final.

“All that was going through my mind was my seniors,” McLean said. “I was playing for them. I really wanted to play for them in the state championship, and I was just busting my tail down that line to score.”

Sterkenburg added a two-out RBI single in the third for Rockford, which got a strong starting performance by right-hander Zach Marshall, who threw six innings, allowing two runs and striking out five. Marshall scored on Sterkenburg’s hit after his own single.

For Dakota, righty Matt Biebuyck allowed one run over seven innings and had five strikeouts in the program’s first trip to the Semifinals.

Coach Gerald Carley’s Dakota team, which entered the game winning eight of 11 for an improbable run to East Lansing, will graduate six seniors.

Click for the full box score.

Portage Northern 2, Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice 0

Cam French outdueled travel ball teammate Tyler Sarkisian to advance to the Final.

French threw a complete-game shutout, allowing three hits and no walks, and striking out six in the gem.

“Honestly, the plan was just come in like I have all season, just throwing strikes, filling up the zone and mixing up some of the pitches,” said French, who improved to 11-0 on the season. “With this big of a crowd, and people cheering you on, you just got to stay mentally focused and know what’s at hand. And I did that.”

Shortstop Nolan McCarthy delivered the big hit in the sixth inning with an RBI triple off the wall to score Eastern Michigan-bound Tyler Helgeson, who reached on a bunt. McCarthy then scored on an error.

Meanwhile, McCarthy led the defense behind French, as his diving stab opened the third inning.

Greg Lapetina, Jack Beffel and French added hits for Portage Northern (38-7), which will be playing for its first Finals title in this sport.

Sarkisian, who will pitch at the University of Chicago, allowed one earned run and struck out four over six innings for Brother Rice (25-13). 

Sterling Hallman opened the seventh inning with a single for Brother Rice and reached second on a wild pitch. But French got three straight fly outs to center field to close the win.

Brother Rice had just two baserunners reach second base.

Second baseman Tito Flores ended his Brother Rice career with two hits. His coach, Bob Riker, called Flores a “culture changer” for a program. Flores' next stop: University of Michigan, which will play in the College World Series.

As for Portage Northern, the Huskies are back in the Final for the first time since 2015 when they suffered a 2-1 loss to Hartland in 10 innings.

“We feel good to be back here,” French said. “We’ve been waiting a long time.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Rockford’s Luke McLean scores the game-winning run in the Rams’ extra-inning victory over Macomb Dakota on Thursday. (Middle) Cam French fires a pitch during Portage Northern’s shutout of Brother Rice.

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.)