Forgettable Start, Unforgettable Finish
June 13, 2015
By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING — The goal for Warren Regina after eight games wasn't to win an MHSAA softball championship.
It was much simpler than that: Just win one game.
Although records don't exist for such things, it's safe to assume that Regina is the first team to win an MHSAA championship after starting a season 0-8 (without forfeits).
The journey from frustration to elation concluded Saturday with a 5-0 victory over Caledonia in the Division 1 title game at Michigan State University.
Regina finished with a 27-16 record but more importantly, was 7-0 during the MHSAA tournament. The Saddlelites allowed only eight runs and had three shutouts in those seven games.
Once Regina's record hit 3-11, a team meeting was convened.
"We talked about, 'Hey, we have a lot of team talent. Why waste it this year?'" said senior pitcher Marissa Tiano, who pitched a two-hitter and struck out nine against Caledonia.
It was the kind of start that Regina's players can make light of in retrospect.
"We actually made jokes about it," said Regina junior Nicole Roeske, who was 3 for 3 in the Final. "It's a whole different team, like a family now. At the beginning, we were frustrated with losing."
Legendary Regina coach Diane Laffey said that, in her role as athletic director, she was partially to blame for the slow start.
"I was probably stupid," said Laffey, who has won 1,066 games in 45 years as Regina's coach. "I front-loaded the schedule and probably shouldn't have. Of those eight losses, two were to Mercy, two were to Ladywood, two were to Romeo, two were to Dakota. Those are all good teams. We weren't losing to flukes, but it gets really frustrating."
The only frustration Saturday was experienced by the Caledonia hitters, who couldn't get to third base and reached second only twice. The Fighting Scots' most reliable way to reach base was getting hit by pitches. They were hit three times, walked twice and had only two singles.
"We didn't show the kind of team we are today," Caledonia coach Tom Kaechele said. "She had us guessing up there. We just didn't adjust, but that's the game of softball. That's why you compete at this level. We just played at the highest level we could in Division 1, and there are 199 other schools who would like to be here just like us."
The game was scoreless through three innings before Regina broke the deadlock in the top of the fourth. Roeske led off with a single and scored on a two-out triple to right-center field by Hailey Reese.
"Knowing my team, I knew all we needed was one big hit and we'd win the game," Reese said. "I had faith in them."
The Saddlelites busted it open with a four-run fifth inning.
On a 3-2 pitch, Riley Hison lined a double deep to left field to score two runs. Hison moved to third on a throwing error and scored on a pitch in the dirt. Sydney Spatafore scored the final run of the fifth just before a tag on a runner going from second to third ended the inning.
Caledonia (34-5) had batters hit by pitches in each of the last three innings, but neither got past first base.
Regina has a 6-0 record in MHSAA Finals, winning its first title since going on a four-year run from 2004-07.
"Our picture goes up in the gym along with the other ones," Tiano said. "It feels great."
Caledonia was playing beyond the regional round for the first time.
"We're disappointed, obviously," Kaechele said. "This team has overcome a lot of adversity this year. To be 34-5 is an awfully good season. I told them to make sure you celebrate this moment and look at the accomplishments you've had this year. We've never been here before. We've never won a Regional before. You need to celebrate that for the program, the community and yourselves."
PHOTOS: (Top) Longtime Regina coach Diane Laffey hoists her team’s championship trophy Saturday. (Middle) Regina’s Lauren Buckowski tries to beat a throw to first base with Hannah Horvath covering.
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.)