Fear Not; Caledonia Continues Record Run
June 11, 2015
By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Everything about Thursday afternoon should have been at least a little intimidating for Caledonia and pitcher Samantha Gehrls.
The Fighting Scots were playing in their first MHSAA Semifinal. They were facing a Farmington Hills Mercy team that had hit 27 home runs.
Did you know Gehrls is only a freshman?
Could’ve fooled everyone at Michigan State University’s Secchia Stadium. Gehrls threw pitches that showed she was downright fearless, holding the Marlins’ big bats at bay in leading Caledonia to a 5-2 win and its first appearance in an MHSAA softball championship game.
The Scots will take on Warren Regina at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
“I went in with the mentality that we’re here right now. The farther you get in the tournament, the better the hitters are going to be,” said Gehrls, who struck out eight and walked one. “I just have to face the fact and know that I can’t be intimidated because my team needs me. Obviously, it’s definitely in back of my head, ‘I can’t hang this over the plate.’ (I was) just trying to stay concentrated on each and every pitch.”
Mercy did get nine hits as both teams drove balls all over the park. Marlins sophomore Nicole Belans hit a home run that stayed inside the fence; Caledonia senior McKenzie Butgereit drove her homer over it and also had a double as her team tallied nine hits as well.
Butgereit scored the first run of the game off that double in the second inning, when senior Danielle Oracz doubled her home. Caledonia (34-4) scored two more runs in the fifth inning when senior Ashley Miller tripled in a run and then scored on an error, and then one more each in the sixth and seventh – on Butgereit’s home run and then Miller singling and scoring, respectively.
That set the most daunting scene Gehrls would face all day.
Mercy (27-4) had gotten its two runs on Belans’ drive in the sixth inning, and the score stood 5-2 with Caledonia needing three outs to advance. Gehrls struck out the first of the seventh inning, but Marlins senior Alex Sobczak and sophomore Sophia VanAcker followed with singles. The tying run came to the plate – junior Abby Krzywiecki, she of a .594 average, 12 home runs and 56 RBI this spring heading into the week.
“I’m thinking ‘Oh my gosh, we have to get this girl out.’ I don’t even really know,” Gehrls said of the thoughts spinning through her mind at that moment. “I focused on every single pitch. … And I knew that once we get this batter, we’ve got to focus on the next. If we get this girl, we’re one step closer to getting that win.”
The titanic matchup could be repeated on this field a year from now. But round one went to Gehrls, who kept the ball on the outside of the plate to draw a fly out to third base. The next batter flew out to second base to end the game.
“She’s well beyond her years as a freshman,” Caledonia coach Tom Kaechele said of Gehrls. “She’s strong. She lives in the weight room. She’s just a great basketball player. She’s just a great athlete, and I’m fortunate to have her on my team.
“Her older sister (Alexa) went on to play at Saginaw Valley (State University), and she leans on her too. But I think one of the neatest things is my junior pitcher who is out in centerfield has been a great mentor to her. Taylor (VanZytveld) has pitched in some big games. … Sami asks her for advice all the time. There’s no competition, no jealousy, nothing like that, and that is so huge on a team when you have two kids, an older one and a younger one, that depend on each other.”
Miller, Butgereit, Oracz and junior Lexi Lieske all had multiple hits for Caledonia. Belans, Sobczak and VanAcker did the same for Mercy.
Warren Regina 7, Mattawan 1
Regina’s players chanted, “We’re still hungry,” after leaving the field at Secchia Stadium. They have room left for one more highlight from a season quickly filling up with them after an empty start.
The Saddlelites will play for an MHSAA title for the first time since 2007, and despite opening this season 3-11.
Regina unloaded seven runs during the fifth and sixth innings to stay alive for one more game after Mattawan scored its only run in the fourth inning.
The Saddlelites had 12 hits – with nine came over the final three innings.
“We’ve been really working on our bunts and working on the little things, because in the beginning we weren’t doing the little things, which really is helping us now,” said Regina senior Riley Hison, who singled in the go-ahead run. “We’ve been working on our hitting too. We’ve been doing a lot more drills and more fundamentals than what we usually do.”
Hison had two hits and three RBI total, and seniors Gina Munson, Marissa Tiano and junior Kristina Carlson all also had two hits apiece.
Tiano was near-flawless from the pitching circle, giving up only four hits without walking a batter. Junior Amber Mazahem had one of those hits for Mattawan (30-13) and drove in the lone run.
Regina moved to 26-16, with 11 wins over its last 14 games.
“We might as well win states now,” Hison said. “We’ve come this far.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Caledonia's Samantha Gehrls unwinds toward the plate during her team's Division 1 Semifinal win Thursday. (Middle) A Regina hitter connects for one of the team's 12 hits.
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.)