Muskegon Oakridge Surging Again, but with Switch to Heavy-Hitting Style

By Tom Kendra
Special for

May 5, 2022

Don’t expect much “small ball” from the Muskegon Oakridge softball team.

While veteran Oakridge coach Joe Coletta has fielded speedy teams in the past that terrorized opponents with stolen bases and bunting, this year’s edition manufactures runs the old-fashioned way – by swinging for the fences.

“We don’t have any girls at the top of the order that are going to steal bases – I’ll just let everybody know that,” said Coletta with a smile, after his team improved to 13-0 on Wednesday with two come-from-behind wins over visiting West Michigan Conference rival Ravenna, which also entered the showdown unbeaten.

“We’re not a speed team; we’re a long-ball hitting team. We have to be patient at times, but the long ball can change the game in a hurry.”

It certainly took some patience Wednesday, as Ravenna junior ace Emma Gillard baffled the Eagles early with her changeup, leading many in the crowd to wonder if they were witnessing a changing of the guard in WMC softball.

Then came the fifth inning.

The Oakridge “Smash Sisters” went to work and scored 11 runs, turning a scary 5-0 deficit into a comfortable 11-5 lead. The Eagles did it with not one, not two, but three over-the-fence home runs in that pivotal inning.

The lead basher for the Eagles is senior second baseman Jasmine “JJ” Pastor, who struck out in her first two at-bats Wednesday before getting her team on the board in that big inning with a two-run homer over the left-centerfield fence.

“I knew what happened the first two at-bats, and I knew it was time for me to step up,” said Pastor, a Muskegon Community College commit who is batting .444 with a team-high six home runs and nine doubles.

Pastor’s shot opened the floodgates, with the biggest hit of all coming from junior catcher Andrea Romero-Serrano (who bats sixth in the lineup), who belted a grand slam to give the Eagles a 6-5 lead. The final long ball of the inning came from sophomore first baseman Madison Clark, a lefty who pulled one over the rightfield fence for her team’s final runs in an 11-6 win.

The Eagles’ power is not contained to the top of the batting order, either, as eight of the nine starters have hit out-of-the-park home runs this spring.

Oakridge, which is ranked No. 7 in Division 2, had to rally again in second game, falling behind 6-3 heading into the sixth inning.

That was when the bottom of the Eagles’ batting order sparked another rally. Freshman Brenna Cabrera and sophomores Ahria Doornbos and Mallori Whipple all singled, leaving the bases loaded for Pastor.

Muskegon Oakridge softballAfter swinging wildly at a pair of lethal changeups from Ravenna freshman Addison Gillard, Pastor was ready for the third off-speed pitch, waiting on it perfectly and smashing a game-changing grand slam. Oakridge would add a pair of insurance runs in the top of the seventh for a 9-6 win.

Kaelinn Jozsa, a sophomore shortstop, leads Oakridge with a .600 batting average and three home runs. Other leading hitters are senior Brooklyn Galdeen (.467, two home runs), Clark (.412, two home runs) and senior centerfielder Delaney Ruel (.410).

Galdeen is the Eagles’ ace pitcher, with seven wins. Josza has five wins, and freshman Kylee Willea earned a gutty win in her first start of the season in Wednesday’s nightcap against Ravenna.

Oakridge now has a leg up as it seeks its sixth-straight WMC title. The Eagles have been the premier softball program in the Muskegon area over the past decade, winning seven District titles under Coletta. The highlight was a four-year stretch from 2016 to 2019, when the Eagles won 30 or more games each season.

Coletta said that Pastor, one of three seniors in the Oakridge starting lineup along with Galdeen and Ruel, was more vocal than he’s ever seen her at practice leading up to Wednesday’s showdown. Pastor said she was motivated by last year’s matchup with Ravenna, when the Bulldogs snapped the Eagles’ incredible 65-game conference winning streak in a doubleheader split, leading to a shared league championship.

“It’s just great competition between us and always back-and-forth,” said Pastor, whose father, Red Pastor, has coached her for many years in travel softball and is the Eagles’ longtime assistant coach. “Knowing that we have Ravenna right there, coming after us, pushes us even more.”

The two teams are likely to square off again in Saturday’s Greater Muskegon Athletic Association County Tournament, where Ravenna (16-2) will certainly be out for revenge.

One of the nice aspects of the budding softball rivalry between the two neighboring school districts is that they will go their separate ways in the postseason, with Oakridge in Division 2 and Ravenna in Division 3.

For Coletta, a three-sport athlete at Ravenna who has now won 280 games in 14 years as the Oakridge softball coach, the softball diamond is just the latest stage for one of the state’s best prep rivalries - which has been part of his life since he was a little kid.

Coletta served as the longtime offensive coordinator at Oakridge under Jack Schugars, the winningest football coach in Muskegon-area history. The Oakridge-Ravenna football rivalry ran red-hot during those years, particularly a 15-year stretch from 1994 to 2008, when the Bulldogs won four state titles and the Eagles won three.

“When I came over here to coach football, the rivalry was very intense,” said Coletta, who returned as softball coach this spring after stepping down in 2019. “I really enjoyed that rivalry, and now it’s going to be just like that for a while in softball – we both have some great young players. If you’re a competitor, this is exactly what you want.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Muskegon Oakridge senior second baseman Jasmine Pastor connects at the plate. Pastor is batting .444 this season with eight home runs and nine doubles for the Eagles, who are 13-0 and ranked No. 7 in Division 2. (Middle) Head coach Joe Coletta, left, and assistant Red Pastor have built the Oakridge softball program into one of the best in West Michigan. (Photos by Sherry Wahr.)

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.)