Millington Run Unprecedented, Unforgettable

June 27, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

When they were younger, “they weren’t the best,” Millington softball coach Greg Hudie admitted Thursday in recalling the group that became the core of his varsity the last four seasons.

But these Cardinals made themselves into so much more. While all championship teams are memorable, this one will remain unforgettable for what it accomplished this spring.

Millington – after falling just short in finishing Division 3 runner-up a year ago – returned to Michigan State University’s Secchia Stadium two weekends ago and this time left with the school’s first MHSAA championship in any sport.

The MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for June was one of two title winners during the 2018-19 school year – joining the Ypsilanti Lincoln boys basketball team – to win the first Finals championship in school history.

“Just being the first state championship in our school is pretty remarkable,” Hudie said. “No matter how many we have now, it’s pretty cool that everybody will remember it. If it’s 50 years from now, and we have 10 state championships, this was still the first one. And the group of girls we did it with was very awesome as well, very good all-around – academically, athletically, a really tight family team.”

Millington finished 38-2-1 this spring, capping a four-year run at 150-16-1 with four league, District and Regional titles, three Semifinal appearances and this first championship.

The District title won in 2016 actually was the program’s first, and that year’s postseason run to the Semifinals helped set the tone for a freshman class that would become nearly unstoppable by the end of their careers.

Pitcher Gabbie Sherman, catcher Sydney Bishop, infielders McKenna Slough and Hannah Rabideau and outfielders Elizabeth Bees, Leah Denome and Samantha Ayotte all finished as four-year varsity players. Sherman, Bishop, Slough and Denome started the entire way (Rabideau was slated to do the same but was injured that first season). Current juniors Darrien Roberts and Madi Hahn joined the varsity as freshmen in 2017 when the team’s run ended in the Quarterfinals. Shortstop Sabrina Gates earned a starting job as a freshman in 2018 and then-sophomore Neveah Hendricks moved into the outfield as the team came within a 7-6 championship game loss to Coloma from claiming a first title.

This spring, with all of those players back and freshman Trinity Fessler taking over an outfield spot, Millington blasted through the regular season losing only to eventual Division 1 semifinalist Clarkston and Division 2 semifinalist Eaton Rapids, while defeating back-to-back Division 2 champion Escanaba. The Cardinals outscored their seven postseason opponents by a combined 56-4, closing with an 11-0 shutout of Marine City in the Quarterfinal, 7-1 win over Standish-Sterling in the Semifinal and 8-0 clincher over Schoolcraft in the championship game.

The build-up began long before high school. During elementary, Sherman was the first to start playing higher-level travel ball in the surrounding area. But around the time her class was playing 10-and-under, she and her family decided to play on a team with the other Millington girls – and as the pitcher she was able to carry the load while they were learning the game.

In fact, the team jokingly recalls now how Bishop nearly didn’t make that 10U squad. But Hudie said his catcher has worked harder than anyone he’s coached during a decade leading the program – and by sophomore year she’d earned all-state honorable mention.

This team rewrote the school’s record book, and the home run category is maybe the best example of what these seniors brought to the program. Millington would hit about five home runs a year during Hudie’s first six as coach – then had 44 in 2016, followed by 28, 38 and this spring 48. Bishop broke a decades-old record with 14 homers as a freshman, and Roberts blasted 18 to break the record this spring.

Roberts, Denome, Rabideau, Bishop and Sherman made the Division 3 all-state first team this season. Hahn joined those five on the all-Tri-Valley Conference East first team, with Slough and Gates making the second.

Sherman will continue her career at Kent State, while Denome will play next at Spring Arbor, Rabideau at Mott Community College and Bees at Rochester College. Bishop, who graduated with the GPA over 4.0, had a number of softball scholarship offers and will try to walk on at Oakland University.

“It will be hard to duplicate. Hopefully we can keep it going. … Obviously these girls were paving the way,” Hudie said. “We had a couple of girls before them, had a couple scattered (over more classes), and obviously freshman year they didn’t get to the Semifinal just on their own. But this group kinda showed how to stay together, how to put work in together, and I think that helped the program out most.

“Just showing five or six awesome girls who are willing to put in the time together in the weight room, in the batting cage (what they can accomplish). That really taught our program, our younger girls, and that’s neat.”

Past Teams of the Month, 2018-19

May: Gladstone boys track & field – Read
April: Garden City baseball – Read
March: Holland West Ottawa boys swimming & diving – Read
February: Lowell wrestling – Read
January: Farmington United gymnastics – Read 
December: Warren Woods-Tower wrestling – Read
November: Rochester Adams girls swimming & diving – Read
October: Leland boys soccer – Read
September: Pickford football – Read
August: Northville girls golf – Read

PHOTOS: (Top) Millington’s players raise their first MHSAA Finals championship trophy in school history June 15 at Secchia Stadium. (Middle) The Cardinals’ Leah Denome rounds first base after one of her four hits in the title game. (Below) Millington poses with its trophy and in front of the Secchia scoreboard after its championship win.

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.)