Return Trip Ends with Dakota's 1st Title

June 17, 2017

By Perry A. Farrell
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING – Macomb Dakota had unfinished business at the Division 1 Softball Final against Grandville on Saturday at Michigan State.

The Cougars lost in last year’s Final, 4-0, to Farmington Hills Mercy while pursuing their first MHSAA title. But they earned another shot this weekend, against a Bulldogs team also looking to win a first championship in program history.

A bases-loaded wild pitch sent Dakota’s Kattie Popko home to score the winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning for a 4-3 victory and the Cougars’ redemption.

Ranked No. 1 for most of the season, Dakota finished 36-2.

“We always depend on each other and we always, always, always never give up; that’s something that helped us win today,’’ said Popko, a senior outfielder who had two hits. “As soon as I saw the ball go high, I knew I had to go. Right from her hand it’s an immediate trigger. I had to go for it.

“Last year we knew it was going to be tough going into the state championship game. Farmington Hills Mercy blew their way through the tournament. This year we knew we had to forget about last year. We knew it was going to be even harder this year to make it here. We had to have confidence in ourselves and trust the training we’ve been through.’’

With one out in the eighth, Popko reached base on an error by the third baseman, and Julia Salisbury –  who had driven in the first three Cougars runs and had three hits – singled to put the winning run at second base with pitcher Kendahl Dunford coming to the plate. Dunford singled in front of the rightfielder to load the bases with one out.

Grandville pitcher Ellie Muilenburg struck out the next batter. Dakota’s Arieanna Grammatico was at the plate when the wild pitch got away.

“It was a great game; we went toe-to-toe with the best team in the state,’’ said Grandville coach Troy Ungrey. “I will feel better about it in a couple of hours. I’m proud of the girls. We’ve come a long way. You know you’re going to see great pitching in the state championship game. That being said, I think if they aren’t the top two pitchers in the state they have to be in the top five; both of them. Hats off to (Dunford). We were a little high on the pitch. We were planning to go up in the zone. It just got away.’’ 

Dunford threw all eight innings, striking out 11.

“It’s good to see your hard work pay off,’’ said Dunford. “This is where it gets you; you get a state championship if you keep working hard. Every girl has to have the mentality that you want this, and it comes down to who wants it more. I think we showed that we did.’’

Coach Rick Fontaine said they’d find room in the trophy case for a softball title.

“I said at our banquet that when you’re No. 1 everyone is gunning for you,’’ he said. “You get everybody’s A game every week of the season. After being here last year and losing in the Finals and coming all the way back … to fight all the way through and win is great for the girls, especially for the ones who were on the team last year.’’

Dakota got off to a quick start in the first inning. Corbin Hison singled and made it to second on an error. Olivia Popko singled and Salisbury doubled both home to give the Cougars a 2-0 lead.

It didn’t last long.

Muilenburg singled with one out and Traci Merriman hit a shot that got under the glove of the diving centerfielder. Merriman made it around the bases to tie the game, 2-2.

Grandville kept hitting and got an RBI single from Kalli Gibson to take a 3-2 lead in the top of the third inning. Salisbury drove in her third run with a two-out single to tie the game, 3-3, in the bottom of the third.

It stayed that way as both pitchers, Dunford and Muilenburg, allowed just five hits each and enjoyed good defense behind them.

Dunford had reached double-digit strikeouts by the top of the seventh inning, but Muilenburg kept the Cougars’ bats silent as well. She finished with 10 strikeouts, and both walked only one batter.

Click for the full box score

PHOTOS: (Top) Macomb Dakota's Kattie Popko slides in for the winning run in the Division 1 Final. (Middle) Kendahl Dunford prepares to deliver during her 11-strikeout performance. 

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.)