'Oakridge Girls' Shine on Statewide Stage

June 10, 2016

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

You have heard of the Oakridge boys.

No, not the country music quartet best known for its 1981 hit “Elvira,” but the Muskegon Oakridge football team, a perennial playoff power which boasts five championship game appearances and three MHSAA titles.

Now, the “Oakridge Girls” are getting their time on the statewide stage.

The young Oakridge softball team (34-2) hopes to take another couple of steps on its journey at Saturday’s MHSAA Division 2 Regional tournament at Gladwin, starting with a noon game against Cadillac.

“Our big goal is to win a state championship,” said junior ace pitcher Alyssa Fessenden, who is 18-1 on the season. “But that starts with the next pitch and the next at-bat. You have to be focused all the time or you’ll get beat. We learned that last year.”

After advancing to the Division 3 Quarterfinals in 2014, the Eagles never even made it to District weekend last year, falling to neighboring rival Ravenna, 3-2, in a Division 3 Pre-District game.

Fessenden said that loss has helped to bond and focus this year’s team, which has fearlessly made the move up to Division 2 for the first time. That lack of fear starts with an outstanding freshmen class, including shortstop and leadoff hitter Sophia Wiard, big-hitting outfielder Kaylie Piper, and pitchers Kayla Fessenden (Alyssa’s younger sister) and Madison Carroll.

“It has taken a lot of weight off of my shoulders,” said Alyssa Fessenden of the addition of the two freshman pitchers. “Last year, I had to pitch every single game and if I just didn’t have it for some reason, I had to keep going. This year, we have those two who can come in and that takes a lot of pressure off of me and keeps my arm fresh.”

Those three pitchers powered Oakridge to its first Greater Muskegon Athletic Association county tournament championship since 2001, as well as an undefeated season in the West Michigan Conference. The Eagles have continued rolling in the postseason, winning three games at last week’s Division 3 District at Sparta by a combined score of 29-1.

Oakridge has produced a storybook season despite having only three seniors – second baseman Alessa Buchner, centerfielder Abby Lowe and Miranda Vanderwort.

The leader of the Oakridge girls is Joe Coletta, the longtime offensive coordinator of the school’s football team and right-hand man of legendary coach Jack Schugars on all five of the Eagles’ runs to the MHSAA Finals.

“I took over the program because we had a good group of girls coming through that needed a coach,” said Coletta, who coached football at Oakridge for 25 years. “I figured I’d do it for two years. But it has gotten into my blood, and I just love it.”

Coletta has transformed the softball program and helped spearhead the renovation of the school’s dilapidated softball facilities, which he says are now a source of community pride. This summer, the field will get new dugouts, also funded by community donations.

Coletta gives much of the credit for the on-field turnaround to his assistant coach, Red Pastor, who has worked with most of the team’s 14 players since their youth days in the community recreation program, and a tremendous run of female athletes at the Muskegon County school. Oakridge also won a girls soccer District title this year and the girls basketball team has won 50 consecutive league games in the West Michigan Conference.

 “This is a very competitive group of girls, but they genuinely enjoy being around each other and pushing each other,” said Coletta, who teaches physical education at Oakridge High School.

Oakridge can score runs in bunches as leadoff hitter Wiard (.513 batting average, 38 stolen bases) and No. 2 hitter Lowe are adept at getting on base, setting things up for the power bats of Alyssa Fessenden (3 home runs, 48 RBIs), standout catcher Hannah Reinhold (6 home runs, 58 RBIs) and Buchner (55 RBIs) to knock them in.

Both of the Eagles’ losses came on the same day – at the Michigan High School Blue Chip tournament at Byron Center, which featured 12 state-ranked teams out of 16 total.

Fessenden hopes the fast pitching the Eagles faced in that tournament will pay off Saturday, when they go up against Cadillac senior ace Gabby Hoagland in the Regional opener. Ironically, Oakridge found a way to beat Hoagland two years ago in a Division 3 Regional game, when Hoagland was pitching for McBain.

Cadillac also will have to find a way to get to Fessenden in what has the makings of a pitcher’s duel. Fessenden sports a 0.96 ERA, 160 strikeouts and just 27 walks in 102 innings pitched.

Fessenden tries not to be superstitious, although she does wear two pairs of socks every game and will do it again Saturday even though temperatures are expected to soar into the high 80s (Buchner is the opposite, wearing socks with the toes torn out).

 “Fessy” knows the key to continuing the tournament run has nothing to do with socks, and everything to do with preparation and performance.

“Our coaches cranked up the pitching machine at practice this week and moved it in closer, so we’ll be ready for the fast pitching,” Fessenden said. “It should be a great game.”

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) Junior ace pitcher Alyssa Fessenden delivers for the Muskegon Oakridge softball team, which is 34-2 entering Saturday's MHSAA Division 2 Regional at Gladwin. (Middle) Joe Coletta, the longtime offensive coordinator for the powerful Muskegon Oakridge football program, is in his eighth season as the school's softball coach. (Photos by Sherry Wahr.)

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.)