Grandville, Dakota Follow Veterans' Leads

June 15, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor 

EAST LANSING – A powder puff football game was not going to keep the Grandville softball team from making history this season.

Ellie Muilenburg made sure of that. The Bulldogs had big plans, but needed her to keep them.

Sporting a white head band, maroon hair bow and black plastic brace on her left knee, Muilenburg took the pitcher’s circle for Grandville’s first MHSAA Semifinal since 1982.

Less than a year after tearing a knee ligament, seven months after surgery to repair it and about 30 games after she returned to the circle, the Bulldogs’ senior ace allowed two hits and struck out nine in a 2-1 win over Clarkston at Secchia Stadium.

On Saturday, Grandville will play for its first MHSAA softball title.

“After my ACL injury, I thought it was going to be a really tough battle coming back, and it was. But I’ve come back stronger than I’ve played my whole career,” Muilenburg said.

“It was mentally, emotionally, physically draining. But I knew I could do it for my team. We’ve been saying since day one this was the state championship team. We knew we could make it.”

The Bulldogs (32-7), an honorable mention in the final regular-season poll, will face top-ranked Macomb Dakota (35-2) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

Muilenburg also helped pitch Grandville to league and District titles last season and is a four-year varsity player. But she suffered a knee injury during a powder puff football game in the fall and had surgery just five months before her softball team’s first games of this spring.

“There were times when she’d go, ‘I’ll be back,’ and I’d go, we’ll see,” Grandville coach Troy Ungrey said. “Ten games in she said, ‘I’m testing it out next week.’ When she said she was ready to go, of course I said, ‘Yes!’” 

Muilenburg did indeed return for the team’s 11th game, a 14-3 win over Holland West Ottawa where Ungrey noticed “she had a smile on her face like the first game she threw for us” freshman year.

With Thursday’s win, Muilenberg moved to 17-1 since her return. But a young Clarkston team nearly put Grandville’s good times to an end.

With only one senior on the roster, the Wolves (32-10) – also a rankings honorable mention – matched zeroes with the Bulldogs through five innings. Grandville scored its runs in the top of the sixth, both on errors. Clarkston came back in the bottom of the inning and loaded the bases, scoring on freshman Sierra Kersten’s sacrifice fly with two outs – but Muilenburg came back to get a swinging strikeout to end the rally. She also got the final out on strikes before being engulfed by her teammates.

“As a pitcher, it’s really a mental game. And so mentally, I just have to think I’m better than you – I’m going to get this; this is my game,” Muilenburg said. “And so I just turn around and throw how I do.”

She struck out nine and gave up only two hits, while Clarkston sophomore Olivia Warrington didn’t yield an earned run and struck out six while allowing four hits.

Click for the full box score.

Macomb Dakota 6, Mattawan 3

Dakota was in a similar spot as Grandville last season, making a championship game for the first time before falling to Farmington Hills Mercy in the Final.

It’s been tough for the Cougars this spring to not look ahead to mid-June. But putting up four runs in the first inning Thursday provided a deserved reward for their self-discipline leading up to that point.

“All year, it’s been come back here, do work and stay focused,” Dakota junior centerfielder Olivia Patton said. “Each game, we knew that each inning counted and everything matters … (but) we knew that we wanted to come back here all season.”

Patton had one of the hits and scored the second run of that first-inning rally, which included senior first baseman Julia Salisbury driving in one, senior pitcher Kendahl Dunford doubling home two and sophomore catcher Sam DiCicco knocking in the fourth.

For the game, Patton, junior shortstop Corbin Hison and senior leftfielder Kattie Popko all had two hits. Patton’s second was a triple.

Fifth-ranked Mattawan (32-8) did get to Dunford for one run in the first inning and two in the third. But she retired the final 12 batters in order, giving herself and a number of contributors from last season another chance to win the program’s first title.

“The first time we were here was very nerve-wracking, and obviously it still is,” Patton said. “But knowing we can do it, and staying positive, is very helpful.”

Mattawan junior pitcher Emily Koperdak also had two hits and scored twice. Senior third baseman Joanna Bartz drove in two runs.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Grandville's Ellie Muilenburg unloads a pitch during Thursday's first Division 1 Semifinal. (Middle) Dakota's Lauren Bobowski rounds third base on the way to scoring one of her team's six runs.

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.)