D2 Softball: Two Pitching Heroes, One Title Shot
June 15, 2012
By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
BATTLE CREEK – Briana Combs carried Livonia Ladywood as long as she could Friday before her left knee said no more.
But thanks to the equally heroic relief of sophomore Lauren Hayes, Combs and the Blazers will get a chance Saturday to win their first MHSAA championship.
Combs, the team’s four-year ace, got within two outs of finishing off Wayland Union in Friday’s Division 2 Semifinal. But a knee injury that’s kept her out of practice the last two weeks became just too painful – and Hayes, a rarely-used pitcher who said herself she usually gives up her share of hits, came on to finish the job.
She struck out two batters and Ladywood hung on for a 4-2 win – followed by Combs coming out of the dugout not for the celebration, but to hug her closer.
“She said thank you very much,” Hayes said. “She gave me a big hug and said thank you for getting me through it.”
The No. 2 Blazers (38-3) will face No. 3 Saginaw Swan Valley in Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. Final.
Ladywood has been to the Semifinals three times over the last four seasons, and Combs was a freshman throwing in the 2009 championship game – a 4-0 loss to Niles.
She struck out five and gave up just six hits Friday before calling to the dugout after getting the first out in the seventh inning. She had a small hobble as she walked around the pitching circle, and her coach and father Scott Combs said he was unsure if she’d be able to pitch in the championship game.
Hayes will be ready. Although she’s thrown fewer than 10 innings this season, she’s been putting in a lot more practice of late to prepare for a situation in which Combs can’t go.
“We’ve been trying massages, trying balms, trying Mr. Miyagi (of “Karate Kid” fame), anything we can,” Scott Combs. “We got six innings out of her. I didn’t think we’d get two or three.”
“We’ve gotta be a bullpen (Saturday). We’ve gotta be a staff. We can’t expect someone to go seven innings. … All we can do is ask for a chance to win the championship. We got that chance.”
Hayes also had two hits and drove in a run. Senior catcher Kayla Merice had two hits and junior third baseman Haley Obetts drove in two runs for No. 5 Wayland (38-3-1). Click for a full box score.
Saginaw Swan Valley 2, Coloma 1
Senior outfielder Heather Pollick’s two-run homer in the fourth inning was enough as the Vikings (37-3) advanced to their first MHSAA championship game since 2002.
Pollick drove in senior shortstop Elizabeth Addy, who had walked to open the inning. Coloma got on the board with a run in the bottom of the sixth, but Swan Valley senior Mackenzie Boehler struck out the side in the seventh to finish the win.
She ended with 15 strikeouts and gave up only two hits, with Coloma’s run unearned. Her Comets counterpart, sophomore Emily Najacht, gave up only four hits and struck out six. Coloma (40-3-1) was making its first Semifinal appearance. Click for a full box score.
PHOTOS: (Top) Livonia Ladywood pitcher Briana Combs delivers during Friday's Semifinal win over Wayland Union. (Middle) Swan Valley pitcher Mackenzie Boehler had 15 strikeouts in her team's win over Coloma.
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.)