Cros-Lex Climbing with Coach's Return

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

May 15, 2019

Devyn Gordon grew up watching dominant Croswell-Lexington softball teams. 

She looked on in awe as players like Kylee Barrett and Megan Guitar – who both went on to star at Wayne State University – led the Pioneers to the Division 2 Semifinals in 2014.

So when Bob Young, the coach who was at the helm during that stretch, announced he was coming back to take over the Cros-Lex program for Gordon’s senior year, she was delighted.

“I was actually very excited, because I always grew up kind of idolizing him and his players – they had always been so successful,” said Gordon, who plays third base for the Pioneers. “For him coming back for our senior year, it kind of brightened us up. We were all very excited.”

Young is back in charge at Cros-Lex after a brief three-year retirement. He originally left, in large part, to spend more time watching his grandchildren play their baseball and softball games. When the job was set to be filled for the third time since he retired, however, he decided to come back. 

“I thought I could help the program, help the system, that’s why I came back,” Young said. “(Retirement) was good. I have three grandkids in their 20s now, but the little ones, I have eight grandkids that are 11 years old or younger, and six of them live here in the Croswell area and are all playing ball. I wanted to be able to attend functions and not be strapped in with practices and games. It made sense to me to leave at that time.”

Young coached the Pioneers for nine seasons during his first stint, leading the program from 2007-2015. Over his final six seasons, Cros-Lex won five District championships, advanced to three Regional finals, and qualified for one MHSAA Semifinal. He also helped his sons, Andy and Scott Young, as they coached Cros-Lex to the 2011 Junior League World Series title.

“I definitely think (Cros-Lex) was a staple for softball in Michigan for high schools,” Cros-Lex senior first basemen Lena Stillson said. “They worked so hard, and they definitely benefitted from it. You would think of Cros-Lex, and softball came to mind immediately.”

Stillson and her teammates want to get back to that, and this season has been a good start. The Pioneers are 19-6 and confident as they close in on the postseason.

“We’ve had a pretty good season so far, and we’ve improved so much,” Cros-Lex senior catcher Haley Matthews said. “With every game, we’re learning more and improving more.”

The players agreed it was Young’s knowledge that played a big part in that, but his message has been a simple one.

“I definitely think he’s brought more confidence, and taught us that it’s all about fundamentals,” Stillson said. “If you don’t have fundamentals, you’re not going to grow. He definitely forces us to get better and think about the game itself.”

A staple of Young’s previous teams – outside of an all-state pitcher in Guitar – was great defense, and their ability to get players on base and put pressure on defenses. He’s working toward that now.

“We’ve won a lot of close games,” Young said. “We hit the ball OK, and our pitching is pretty accurate, but we don’t have a lot of speed. I’d like to bunt a lot more, so we work on bunting quite a bit.

“We’ve been learning, and we keep learning in every practice. They’ve surprised me, I think. We’re doing better than I thought we would. We’re, by no means, an elite team. But we’re doing OK.”

Young said the team bought into his coaching immediately, even though he had never coached any of them at anything other than a clinic.

“I knew a lot of these girls, I just didn’t have them in high school,” he said. “I think they all pretty much know that I know what I’m talking about. I think that’s a credit to them. Every one of them has been so open-minded and ready to learn and do as I asked them to do. They’ve been terrific. We haven’t had any issues at all, and that makes a difference. I ask them to do something, and they put their best foot forward and do the best they can.”

It’s Young’s past success that created that instant credibility, the players said, and he’s done a lot to prove their confidence in him was warranted. Now they’re confident they can compete for something they haven’t won since he left – a district title.

“Having a winning record coming off the past couple years, it’s definitely been a confidence boost for us,” Gordon said. “We know that our record shows that we’re pretty good. I think we’re using that confidence every time we go to the plate, step into the pitcher’s circle or onto the field.”

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) Croswell-Lexington softball coach Bob Young talks things over with two of his hitters during an early-spring game. (Middle) Young works with a possible future player at a community clinic. (Photos courtesy of the Croswell-Lexington softball program.) 

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.)