Carrying Heavy Hearts, Wayland Soars
June 13, 2015
By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING — It should have been one of the happiest moments in Leigha Morse's young life, but she couldn't keep from breaking down in tears.
Morse apologized several times for crying while talking about her two-homer performance in Wayland's 11-0 victory over Frankenmuth in the MHSAA Division 2 softball championship game Saturday at Michigan State University.
She was hardly alone. In a surreal celebration scene, the Wildcats struggled to balance the joy of winning a championship with the sorrow of losing a close member of the Wayland softball family.
Bill Merchant, the father of Wayland assistant coach Nicki Cardosa, was killed in an automobile accident two days earlier. His death came before the Wildcats took the field to play in their MHSAA Semifinal, but the players and coaches weren't notified until after the game.
On Saturday, they returned to the same field with the knowledge of Merchant's tragic death still fresh in their minds.
"We made sure that, even with the heartbreak of the Merchant family, we knew we had to pick them up and stay with them," senior pitcher Mallory Teunissen said. "We prayed for them. We made sure that, even though it was a hard loss, that we sang the song we always sing and everybody was still pumped up for this game."
Wayland coach Cheri Ritz said Friday's practice went well until she broke down. Local pastors were brought in to talk with the players. A T-shirt from Wayland's 2006 championship team, on which Merchant had two daughters, and one of his hats were found in his house. They hung in Wayland's dugout for the championship game.
"It was pretty emotional for Nicki and I," said Ritz, who was Merchant's sister-in-law.
The Wildcats (36-2) put their sorrow aside once they stepped between the lines, turning in a dominant performance that saw Morse set one record and Teunissen nearly tie another.
Morse became the first player to hit two homers in an MHSAA Final, sending a solo shot over the 220-foot mark in center field in the second inning and lining a three-run homer over the left field fence in the seventh to cap the scoring.
"I just went up and said, 'Do it for him,'" Morse said. "(Cardosa) has not only been my coach in this, but volleyball as well. She's like a second mom to me."
Teunissen struck out 17 batters, one shy of the MHSAA Finals record for a seven-inning game shared by Kalamazoo Christian's Keri DeJong (1996) and Galesburg-Augusta's Jackie Bowe (2008). Only three other pitchers, including DeJong in 1998, had 17 strikeouts in a seven-inning game.
Teunissen had a no-hitter until Frankenmuth's Ivy Holland singled with two outs in the fifth inning. She allowed four hits and walked three, including the first two batters of the game.
"I just get out there and try to do my thing, make sure my pitches are working," Teunissen said. "In the beginning I walked a few batters, but I had to shake it off."
Frankenmuth had runners on second and third with one out after the two walks in the first inning, but didn't score.
Wayland scored in each of the first three innings to build a 5-0 lead.
Morgan Teunissen, one of three sisters on the team, led off the game with a single and scored on a two-out single to short center field by Hailey Houck to open the scoring.
Morse made it 2-0 by blasting her first homer in the second inning.
The Wildcats broke it open with a three-run third during which they had three extra-base hits. Doubles by Abby Merice and Houck, and a single by Mallory Teunissen scored one run apiece.
After stranding a runner on third and failing to score in the fourth, Wayland tacked on two more runs in the fifth inning when Morgan Winger lined a double over the left fielder’s head.
Frankenmuth's best chance to score came in the sixth when Amariah Wright headed for home on a single by Kayla Brooks, only to be thrown out by center fielder Abby Merice.
Morse's three-run homer capped a four-run seventh inning for Wayland. The first run of the inning scored on a home run by sophomore Bethany Teunissen, an all-stater last season who nearly missed this entire season with a knee injury. Teunissen didn't start Saturday.
"I just get one at-bat normally a game," she said. "It was difficult. I just loved cheering on the team while I was out. It was a great opportunity to come back."
"My little sister Bethany came back from an ACL and she finally got that hit," Mallory Teunissen said. "I can't say how proud I am of her. She tore her ACL in basketball. We weren't sure if she'd be back for the tournament or not. She's an incredible player. I'm so glad she got to get back and I got to play with her my senior year."
Frankenmuth finished with a 37-4-1 record, reaching an MHSAA Final for the third time in school history.
"We played so well all year, then we laid an egg a little bit," Frankenmuth coach Brad Walraven said. "Their pitcher beat us up. That was a good team. You feel lousy for losing the game, but there's 130 other schools who would love to be in our shoes. It was a tough loss, but a great season. It was a wonderful team that I have. I'm going to miss my seven seniors."
PHOTOS: (Top) Wayland players and coaches hoist their MHSAA championship trophy after claiming their first title since 2006. (Middle) Pitcher Mallory Teunissen struck out 17 Frankenmuth batters Saturday.
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.
So, 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.
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.
“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.
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 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.)