Detroit Powers Succeed Amid Lower Numbers

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

April 20, 2016

Participation in spring sports, following a similar decline in student-aged population in Michigan, has been on a decline statewide over the last decade.

But while some like baseball have experienced a slight bounce-back over the last few seasons, softball in particular has seen its numbers continue to fall.

Coaches and administrators in the Detroit area point to a number of factors intertwined that produced a snowball-like effect – and now it seems to have come to a head.

Three softball programs in the Catholic League Central, a division that competes at a high level statewide, don’t have sufficient numbers to field a junior varsity this spring. Many programs don’t sponsor freshmen teams for the same reason. 

But for schools like Birmingham Marian, Farmington Hills Mercy and Livonia Ladywood not to have a junior varsity softball team is quite shocking to some – especially considering that Mercy enters this season ranked No. 3 in Division 1 and Ladywood is No. 2 in Division 2.

Specialization fallout

Marian athletic director Dave Feldman isn’t among those stunned. He saw this coming. Feldman points to the 2007-08 school year when the Michigan High School Athletic Association was forced, by court decision, to switch the volleyball season from the winter to the fall and the girls basketball season from the fall to the winter.

Feldman has a daughter, a freshman at Marian, who participated on the junior varsity volleyball team this fall. When that season was over she joined a club volleyball team. Feldman said the club volleyball season begins in December and continues on into June.

“It’s not AAU,” Feldman said. “But you need to be an AAU member (to play). They play all of the time. Heck, they played on Easter Sunday. And every club is filled.”

The pressure on athletes to play year-round is arguably greater now than it ever has been, and can come from coaches, peers and family – based on a frequent misconception that if athletes want to earn a scholarship, they better keep up with the Joneses or be left behind.

Feldman said he’ll back his daughter with whatever decision she makes. If she wants to play volleyball nine or 10 months a year, he’ll support that. But Feldman said, financially, it’s getting out of hand. He estimated between the cost of airfare, hotels and meals that he’ll spend $6,500 in support of his daughter playing club volleyball. 

And, according to Feldman, the increase in attention on volleyball is affecting participation in other sports.

“(Girls) basketball is fighting for its life,” he said. “Our field hockey program (a fall sport) is fine. Our lacrosse teams are fine.

“We have 15 playing volleyball at all three levels. We had 16 (total) try out for softball and we made two cuts. We haven’t had a JV the last two years. The last time we had a freshman (softball) team was in 2004 or 2005. The last few years the numbers have dropped off. It’s the specialization.”

Simply signs of change?

Warren Regina is another member of the Catholic League Central. Regina athletic director Diane Laffey also is the head coach for softball and basketball, and she said she thinks lacrosse has drawn some athletes away from softball – which makes sense, although the total number of girls playing high school lacrosse in Michigan has increased only about 1,000 over the last decade, while softball participation is down 4,000 athletes over the same time.

One should not use Regina as an example of decline – Laffey’s team won the Division 1 championship last spring and fields a softball team at all three levels. At the same time, Regina also has seen a rise in participation in lacrosse. There are 18 playing for both the varsity and junior varsity this spring, the highest participation in school history.

Mercy varsity softball coach Alec Lesko said, simply, that times have changed. Mercy reached the Division 1 Semifinals last season, just as Ladywood did in Division 2 the year before – yet despite this success, Mercy’s number of softball players also has declined.

“(The students) have many more options,” Lesko said. “In addition to their school work there’s band, theatre, honors society clubs. In the past kids would play three sports and be in the band. All of my daughters were multi-sport athletes. By their sophomore year they had to make a decision (on which sport they would concentrate).

“It’s also economics. They want to earn a scholarship. You hear horror stories about (the cost of) student loans. Even the big schools have trouble getting the (students to play softball).

“As far as college, and I can only speak about softball, the Big Ten coaches want the player they recruit to play other sports,” Lesko added. “I hope to have a JV program next year. A player that misses 30 JV games, we will feel that crunch later. There are those who think JV softball is a waste of time, that you should just compete in travel (during the summer). We will get some of those kids. Those who compete in travel then come to us as sophomores.”

Reasons for optimism

Don Peters is the softball coach at Clarkston, and between coaching travel and at the high school level he’s put in 35 years. He coached travel before taking over the Clarkston program. Peters said the two complement each another, or at least they should.

“I know some disagree,” he said. “The girls have a lot of choices in the spring. Look at all of the sports they can play. I don’t think lacrosse has cut into the numbers. Not yet, but it’s probably going to. We haven’t been affected. We have 45 (covering three teams) in our program. We really push softball in our community because it’s been established.”

Peters said coaches in softball and baseball need to make the game enjoyable, and one way is to reward those who chose to participate by playing them on a regular basis. A student who is No. 14 or 15 on a squad often will play once a week and, with all of the options available, isn’t willing to put in the practice time for limited game action.

Mercy senior first baseman Abby Krzywiecki played a variety of sports before her freshman year. It was then she decided that softball would be her main sport and she chose to pour all of her energy into it. 

She said it’s not all gloom and doom for her sport.

“We had a small freshmen class (last year),” she said. “When I came in we had a large class. It was one of the biggest. It’s not that we’re not getting softball players. In the travel world, it’s becoming more intense. We have more younger people playing. The sport is getting more intense. The talent level is getting higher.”    

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) A Farmington Hills Mercy hitters prepares to connect during last season's Division 1 Semifinal against Caledonia. (Middle) Warren Regina coach Diane Laffey hoists her team's championship trophy after the Saddlelites downed Caledonia in the Final last spring.

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.)