Gladstone Coach Smith Built Champions

October 24, 2016

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

ESCANABA — Gerry Smith put his life into helping area youngsters get a foot into the athletic doorway, and in the process touched the lives of so many people.

“Smitty” died Oct. 15 following a lengthy illness.

“God got a great softball coach,” said retired Gladstone athletic director Matt Houle. “He was unique and old school, but his love for kids and the game always showed clearly. He had such a passion for the game of softball and just loved working with kids.”

Smith, 70, worked at Mead Paper Co. for more than 30 years and was IBEW 979’s business agent for 21 years. But he will perhaps be most remembered for his 43 years on softball and baseball fields throughout the area. He spent 11 years as Gladstone High School’s head softball coach, directing the Braves to MHSAA titles in 2004 and 2009. He was 290-77-1, but missed much of the 2008 season because of shoulder surgery. The Braves were 31-10 under interim manager John Malloch, which would give Smith an overall 321-87-1 record.

“He put a lot of trust into people he asked to help him out,” said Ashley Hughes, who succeeded Smith in 2014 and guided the Braves to the MHSAA Division 3 title that year.

Hughes, who joined Smith on the softball staff when she became a teacher at her alma mater in 2009, also pitched for Smith and the Braves before getting a softball scholarship to Lake Superior State University.

She recalled Smith sought her services when she returned to Gladstone. “Hey kiddo, how about helping us out this year,” is how Hughes remembers that conversation.

He then told her, “I’m going to teach you everything I know and in a few years this will all be yours,” Hughes related.

“For me to come as head coach after Smitty, there was so much pressure. I wanted to live up to everything he had provided for this program,” Hughes said. “I didn’t want to disappoint him. He put a lot of faith in me.”

She said Smith also had an impact when she was a player. “He was so in your face in such a positive light. He wanted you to be successful, whether you had never touched a ball or had the ability to go on to play college ball. He was a spit-fire. He was so intense.

“He just exuded passion, at practice, at games. He had so much love for the game. That is something I’ve held onto because I too loved that game. To have someone like Smitty be so passionate and intense helped me become passionate and gave me the drive to be like that.”

Bill Buchmiller and Smith were partners for 40 years and he became godfather to Buchmiller’s children. In addition to guiding the Braves’ high school varsity, they served as American Legion coaches in the early stages of Gladstone’s program, worked together as Little League coaches and were softball teammates.

“He took a program from nothing to two state championships,” said Buchmiller. “He always encouraged the group. He may have broke them down a little bit but he always built them back up. He was a hard guy to get to know, but once you got to know him, he was a great guy.”

Smith used the knowledge he had gleaned from many years as a player and infused that into his players. “He just dwelled on the basics of softball. If you had to play small ball to win, that is what he played,” said Buchmiller.

“He covered all the different bases of softball. He stressed defense. He told (hitting coach) Al Verbrigghe, ‘You give me one run Al and we’ll win the ball game with my defense. Give me a run and we’ll manage somehow.’”

Theresa Shepeck, who joined Smith on the GHS staff in 2003, agreed with that assessment.

“Smitty always thought the short game was the way to go,” she said. “It was about bunting, not the long ball. You get a runner on one, you bunt her to two. You get somebody on three, then you suicide (bunt) her home.”

Shepeck said his players thrived on his various idiosyncrasies, such as finding tourney lodging in rather inexpensive motels and using a wad of cash to pay for the team’s rooms. “The kids just yukked it up,” she said with a laugh.

“He always put the kids first. If somebody made a mistake, it was never their fault; it is my (Smith’s) fault, the coaching staff’s fault. If one of us coaches made a mistake, he took that blame. It was always his fault, his responsibility,” said Shepeck.

The players appreciated how he used them in games and practices. “His philosophy was to put the best nine on the field, period,” she said. “He walked on a lot of toes, he had a lot of hurt feelings (of parents), but I think the kids respected that. Nobody ever doubted how they fit in. He was there to win.

“He was a little man (about 5-foot-6) but had a huge heart. He was all about the kids and the coaching staff. It was an honor to learn from him, to be in his presence, to be a mentor to the kids.”

Hughes agreed, noting “he had a way of figuring out what the team needs are and re-arranging the players (duties). He knew the players’ strengths and was always looking out for the entire team.”

Smith’s career record likely could have included more wins if he didn’t use the season’s first month to shuffle personnel while building for the postseason. It paid off when it counted the most as the Braves reached at least the Quarterfinal level each of his 11 seasons.

“He was definitely not afraid to experiment,” said Hughes. “He knew the rules of the game and he was always looking for more (from his players). He was an aggressive coach, and the girls who love the sport really grasped at that. He utilized every player on his roster.

“He didn’t have to say too much, but you always wanted to answer him and make him proud and prove to him that you can come through.”

Houle summed up Smith’s legacy when he said, “He was the person that put Gladstone High School on the map in high school activities. He will be dearly missed by so many. He touched so many lives.”

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Gladstone High School softball manager Gerry Smith holds the Division 3 championship trophy after the Braves won the 2009 title in Battle Creek. Smith, who also led the Braves to the 2004 crown, died Oct. 15. (Middle) Smith talks with catcher Jordan Kowalski at a practice prior to the 2011 Division 3 Semifinals. (Photos courtesy of Escanaba Daily Press.)

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.)