Hitters Become Heroes for Division 2 Finalists

June 13, 2019

By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING – Sometimes all it takes is a slow roller, or maybe taking one for the team.

Finding a way to get to a dominant pitcher is never an easy task. But Thursday morning, Stevensville Lakeshore pretty much did a little bit of everything to find a way past No. 3 Eaton Rapids and star pitcher Grace Lehto, 8-1, in a Division 2 Semifinal matchup at Secchia Stadium.

The Lancers broke open a tight game with six runs in the fourth inning, using a hit by pitch, a pair of singles, an error, a gap-shot triple, another hard-hit double and a softly-hit fielder’s choice to get the job done.

Junior Meghan Younger opened things up by being hit by a pitch. After freshman Gianna Kerschbaum reached based on an error and a groundout by sophomore Shelby Grau moved a pair of runners into scoring position, Lakeshore used back-to-back ground balls by freshman Anna Chellman and senior Nadia Amicarelli to plate a pair of runs and take a 3-0 lead. One out later, junior Sierra Ciesielski found the gap in right-center, scoring both Chellman and Amicarelli. Ciesielski would then score on a single by junior Isabella Najera.

The Lancers capped off their scoring on an RBI double by junior Laney Mead, scoring pinch runner Grace Connelly. 

“Coach (Steve) Spenner has just done a fabulous job with our hitters. We knew we couldn’t just go up there and swing wild,” Lakeshore head coach Denny Dock said. “We said, ‘Every pitch is hit with two strikes,’ and we really disciplined ourselves to do that. We told them to not go up there with the idea that you’re just going to outswing this girl. Because history says that’s not going to happen. (Lehto) is a good pitcher. We tried to just cut back a little bit and then once we got momentum going, holy cow, did we see it.”

Lehto, an all-state pitcher who led her team back to the Semifinals for the second straight season, entered the game with a 30-1 record and a miniscule 0.34 earned run average. But on Thursday, she just didn’t have her best stuff.

“It was surprising, how they hit the ball (off Lehto),” Eaton Rapids head coach Scott Warriner said. “But again, you’ve got to give them credit. They were well-prepared, and they drove the ball well on us.

“We had a couple chances to make a few plays that we didn’t quite make. She hadn’t been hit like that this year. The most runs she had given up this year was two runs in a game.”

Ciesielski, Najera and Amicarelli all had two hits and two RBI each for the Lancers. Mead also collected a pair of hits.

“This was kind of a schedule win,” said Dock, who credited a tough slate against some of the state’s top pitchers for his team’s success against Lehto. “We’ve seen the (pitcher) from Gull Lake. We’ve seen the girl from Penn (Ind.). We’ve played Caledonia three games. It’s not like we don’t see (this kind of pitching). Don’t get me wrong, she’s good. But our schedule, we build it to see kids like this. You hope you get a chance to play at this level and see if it all works. Today it worked.”

Kerschbaum picked up the win in the circle for Lakeshore, which will face Escanaba in Saturday’s Division 2 championship game. She pitched 3? innings of scoreless softball. Najera and Connelly finished the game up to help their team advance.

“We’ve got a pitching staff, and we’re not afraid to put them in there,” Dock said. “All three of them did a great job in their time. What a team. We used our roster.”

Lehto finished with three hits at the plate to lead the Greyhounds (39-4). Junior Kendi Richardson drove in her team’s lone run with her groundout scoring pinch runner Mallory Orr in the fifth inning.

Click for the full box score.

Escanaba 2, North Branch 1

The celebration started when the ball left the yard off the bat of Escanaba sophomore Nicole Kamin. It continued when junior pitcher Gabi Salo struck out the last North Branch batter of the game. And it was certain to continue well into the afternoon Thursday, as the Eskymos were set to make a trip to the MSU Dairy Store to celebrate yet another appearance in the Division 2 championship game.

Kamin hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning, and Salo pitched a one-hit gem to help lead their team over North Branch as they continued to pursue a repeat title.

“We battled, we battled, we battled,” said Escanaba head coach Gary Salo. “Nicole’s a basketball kid, just an athletic kid who finds her way to the top of the order with a swing that drops her hands, drops her shoulders. She caught the middle of that ball.”

With her team trailing 1-0 and with two outs in the sixth, Kamin drilled a 2-2 pitch over the wall in left-center, sending the Eskymos’ bench – and the entire crowd – into a frenzy.

“The nerves were kicking in for sure,” said Kamin, who admitted not thinking too much when walking up to the plate. “I just went up there and swung it. It’s just amazing, honestly. Such a big game like this, to bring us to a championship game. It’s awesome.”

Through five innings Thursday, Salo wasn’t sure his team would get a chance to play for another title Saturday. North Branch scored an unearned run in the top of the fourth inning, thanks to an Escanaba error and RBI double by senior Reese Ruhlman, scoring senior Autumn Deshetsky.

“Our defense let us down just a little bit today, not bad,” Salo said. “I kept peeking at the board thinking, ‘You can’t go home giving up one hit.’

“I told (Gabi), ‘We’re gonna get ya two. I don’t know when it’s gonna happen, but we’re gonna get ya two.’ ”

North Branch head coach Alyssa Welling was proud of her team for battling back after a dominating start by Gabi Salo, who struck out 14 batters.

“We worked on hitting yesterday,” Welling said. “This is the best pitcher we've seen all season. We knew what we were getting into coming into this game. They've never said no. They said, 'OK, I've got this next at-bat.' They never stopped.”

Salo credited his team’s recent deep playoff runs with helping it rally for the win over the Broncos.

“I told these ladies when we got off the bus – as a coach you even try to make up stuff at times – that we’re the only team that this is the fourth year in a row (in East Lansing). I didn’t check my facts, but the kids bought into it. I told them, ‘Let’s play our best game,’” the coach said. “We have not played our best game yet, and that’s a scary thought. To get to a state championship game without playing your best game just puts a smile on our face. We’re going to go out and have a ball.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Escanaba’s Nicole Kamin circles third base into a celebration after her go-ahead home run Thursday. (Middle) Lakeshore’s Gianna Kerschbaum unloads a pitch against Eaton Rapids.

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.

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.)