MHSA(Q&)A: Frankenmuth softball coach Brad Walraven

May 31, 2012

By Brian Spencer
Second Half

Brad Walraven initially wanted to coach baseball. And he planned on staying in his first softball job, at Bay City All Saints, just four seasons – long enough to coach his younger sister through her graduation from the school.

But though the last 33 seasons weren’t part of his original plan, there’s no question they’ve worked out well for hundreds of athletes who have come under his leadership.

Walraven has won four MHSAA softball championships and is among only six high school coaches in his sport nationwide with at least 1,000 career wins, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Walraven achieved that milestone when his Frankenmuth team swept Essexville-Garber 7-2 and 7-0 on May 21.

The victories made the Eagles 27-4 this season – and Walraven 1,000-276 in 33 seasons total, including the first 30 at All Saints. In MHSAA history, his career wins total is behind that only of Warren Regina’s Diane Laffey, who has a 1,048-395-3 record heading into this week’s District tournaments.

Walraven also has won 25 District and 16 Regional championships, and taken 10 teams into MHSAA Finals championship games – including the Eagles last season in Division 3. Frankenmuth now is 32-4 this spring, heading into Saturday’s District on its home diamond. 

You started out coaching with the plan of sticking in it for four years. What about the game of softball and coaching it has kept you around for 33?

My priorities in coaching and philosophies have changed (over the years). In my fourth year of coaching, my sister was a senior. That year we turned the program around and started winning games. They were competing. The competition has had me coming back since, along with learning more about the game. 

Did you always want to coach softball? If not, what did you want to do?

No; the funny thing is that I graduated from Bay City All Saints after I won a state championship in baseball.  After I graduated, I wanted the baseball job at Bay City All Saints, but they said I was too young to coach baseball.  However, they did want me to stick around, and they gave me the softball job.

In your 33 years of coaching, what has been the most important piece of advice you’ve been given?

I read this somewhere; if you just keep working hard, good things happen to good people. Though my philosophies have changed, this philosophy has been pretty solid. I’ve also had girls come back from playing with me that say how I had taught them discipline, and that they have carried that with them to the next steps in their lives. As a coach, hearing that from past players is very rewarding.

Are there specific seasons or teams that stick out more than the rest? If so, why?

In 1999, we won states at Bay City All Saints. We set the state record with a 44-3 record. This record I believe is still intact. (All Saints’ 44 wins that spring is now tied with the 2007 White Lake Lakeland team for the most in one season.)

Last year (2011), Frankenmuth got to the Finals and lost in Battle Creek (to Clinton, 4-2 in the Division 3 championship game). It was the first time Frankenmuth had been there since 1991.

What piece of advice can you give to aspiring coaches?

Listening is an important skill. Learn from other coaches. If you think you know it all, you don’t. Every time you go to clinics, you pick up something and learn something new. You must be able to adapt.  Every season is different, as you get a new set of players and personalities to deal with. 

How long do you plan on coaching?

This is a very open-ended date. I was actually going to quit three times in my career for various reasons, but I’m glad that I stuck it out. Given that my health stays good and I continue to wake up every morning excited about coaching, I would love at least another five years in Frankenmuth. 

PHOTOS courtesy of The Frankenmuth News. 

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.)