Dakota, Mercy Set Up Top-Ranked Match-up

June 16, 2016

By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half

EAST LANSING — Kendahl Dunford started summer softball last year with a team that wasn't operating at full strength.

While Dunford was beginning her travel season, some of her teammates were still busy trying to win MHSAA championships with their high school teams.

Dunford's own postseason dreams with her Macomb Dakota team ended in the Pre-District round for the second straight year, despite a 30-6 regular-season record.

"It was not a good feeling," Dunford said. "We had some girls (from the summer team) who were still here. We were like, 'Wow, we could've really been here.' Now this year, being here, it's the best thing ever."

Dunford's high school season will extend to the last possible game after she pitched top-ranked Dakota to a 4-2 victory over Midland in the MHSAA Division 1 semifinals on Thursday at Michigan State University.

The Cougars (38-2), who hadn't won a District since 2000 and had never advanced beyond Regionals until this season, will face Farmington Hills Mercy at 10 a.m. Saturday for the Division 1 title at MSU's Secchia Stadium.

"It's surreal," senior second baseman Sarah Fringer said. "I never thought we were going to get here. We have such a great team. Not getting out of Districts the past couple years has been really tough. Finally being here is an amazing feeling."

It was Fringer who made the defensive play of the game to thwart Midland's final threat.

The Chemics (36-8) had runners on first and second with two outs in the top of the sixth inning, trailing 4-2. Nicole Miiller hit a grounder to the left of Fringer, who made a diving stop, got up and made the throw to first to end the inning.

"It was really huge," Fringer said. "They had runners on first and second with two outs. I was just trying to do anything I could to keep the ball in front of me and not let a run score. I just saw the ball coming and got it. It was a huge relief. We only had three more outs left after that. It was really a big confidence booster that we really had it. We really were going to get the win."

Fringer's play left Midland wondering what could have been.

"We squared it up quite a few times," Midland coach Robin Allen said. "Some of the times when we did, they made a nice play or it went right at them. If that second baseman doesn't make that diving play, that's a whole new ball game. It might have got in the gap. If that gets in the gap, we might have scored two there."

Against Dunford, teams don't get many opportunities to put runs on the board. She retired the Chemics in order in the seventh, ending the game with back-to-back strikeouts. Dunford had nine strikeouts total, allowing six hits and no walks.

Dunford, a junior who has verbally committed to Florida International, entered the game with five straight shutouts. She had allowed only one run over 37 innings in six tournament games, as Dakota outscored its opponents 53-1.

Dakota struck first when Kattie Popko doubled and scored on a single by Claire Hamlin in the second inning.

The Cougars built a cushion in the third, scoring three unearned runs. With one out and nobody on, Corbin Hison reached first base when third baseman Zoe Manary threw high to first base. With two outs, Kelcie LaTour singled home Hison to make it 2-0. After a single by Dunsford, Julia Salisbury stepped up and lined a double to the fence in left-center field to score two runs.

"I just imagine that I'm going to hit it out to left field," Salisbury said. "Before I bat, I look to left field and say, 'I'm driving it out there.' That's what I thought when I hit that."

Dunford's scoreless inning streak ended at 35 in the fourth inning, as Midland cut the Cougars' lead in half.

Pitcher Maya Kipfmiller singled with one out to begin the rally. Julia Gross then hit a ball that eluded the center fielder and rolled to the fence for a triple. Gross headed home when the throw to third was wild. It appeared she would be easily cut down at the plate, but the throw home sailed high.

"We had a little defensive hiccup there," Dakota coach Rick Fontaine said. "I don't think we've made that many errors in the entire postseason. We got them out of the way on one play, so I guess that was a good thing. Defensively, we've been great all year."

Midland went down 1-2-3 in the fifth and seventh innings, failing to score in the sixth because of Fringer's diving stop and throw on the grounder by Miiller.

Dunford had two of Dakota's six hits off of Kipfmiller, who walked four batters, none of whom factored into the scoring.

Kipfmiller and Gross had two hits each for Midland.

"We have one senior," Allen said. "We're a young team, but they don't play like they're young. They all play like seniors. They've been around the program for a long time. It's a special season. It's something these girls will remember the rest of their lives. I'm really excited for them. It's memorable."

Click for the full box score

Farmington Hills Mercy 9, Mattawan 6

Cari Padula came just a foot or so away from hitting a grand slam down the right field line in the second inning. 

She had to settle for a three-run double to left after her long foul ball, but she isn't complaining. Padula's hit highlighted a five-run uprising that carried No. 2 Mercy (42-2) into the championship game for the second time in school history. The 2002 team lost in the Division 1 Final, 4-0 to Portage Northern.

"It would have been awesome if it went out," Padula said of the near-miss to right. "I just knew I needed to recoup. I took a deep breath. I have this little saying. I say, 'See ball, hit ball.' That's exactly what I did." 

Padula had a run-scoring single as part of a three-run sixth inning, giving her four RBI.

"I was really happy for Cari," Mercy coach Alec Lesko said. "Cari walked away from our last game thinking she didn't contribute enough, but she had a couple sac flies. Today she missed a grand slam by about a foot and came down the other line for a bases-emptying double. We're excited for her. She's a senior, and she's been a great leader. I'm glad she had a chance to do something big today." 

Fourth-ranked Mattawan (32-9) jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning before Mercy responded with the five-run second. After Mercy extended its lead to 6-2 in the third following a 54-minute rain delay, Mattawan cut the deficit to 6-5 with two runs in the third and one in the fifth.

Anna Dixon's second double and third hit of the game ignited a three-run sixth inning that gave Mercy some breathing room. Mattawan scored a run in the sixth, but couldn't get closer. 

"We gave up too many, but we fought hard and never gave up," Mattawan junior Joanna Bartz said. "We just tried to play our game and fell short."

Andrea Elmore allowed nine hits and struck out eight for Mercy. Shannon Gibbons was 3 for 4, nearly getting a fourth hit in the sixth, only to be denied by a diving catch by left fielder Sarah Hillsburg.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Macomb Dakota celebrates its first MHSAA Finals berth in softball. (Middle) A Farmington Hills Mercy runner rounds third base during her team's Semifinal win.

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.)