Savvy Seniors Lead Frankenmuth to Final

June 11, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Senioritis always weighs on a spring coach’s mind. It can drain the potential from the best of MHSAA championship contenders.

Frankenmuth softball coach Brad Walraven discussed that possibility once with his team, which includes seven recent graduates. And then he forgot they ever had the conversation. 

That’s how focused the Eagles have been this spring. And they were thankful for veteran composure Thursday during the final innings of the first Division 2 Semifinal at Secchia Stadium.

Carleton Airport had advanced to Michigan State with an epic extra-inning comeback against Portland in Tuesday’s Quarterfinal, and looked to be mounting another with Frankenmuth up two runs in the sixth inning. But a heads-up play and a clutch strikeout from their ace ended the rally and the only threat faced by the Eagles in a 4-0 win. 

“One little thing can cost you this ballgame when you get to this point. You have to literally focus one pitch at a time … or else you could just blow up,” Frankenmuth senior pitcher Amariah Wright said. “I’m really proud of my team for staying focused all the way through.”

Frankenmuth (37-3-1), ranked No. 10 at the end of the regular season, will face No. 1 Wayland in the Final at 10 a.m. Saturday. Both teams have an MHSAA title to their credit – Wayland’s coming in 2006 and the Eagles’ in 1991. 

Since finishing Division 3 runner-up in 2011, Frankenmuth reached the Regional round both in 2012 and again last season. But both times the Eagles fell shy of returning to the season's final week.

Led this time by a strong senior class including six who start, Frankenmuth built on a league championship with wins over honorable mention Saginaw Swan Valley and No. 6 Escanaba over the last two weeks.

Airport trailed Portland by four runs in the seventh inning of its Tuesday Quarterfinal. The Jets came back to down the Raiders 5-4 with a walk-off double in the eighth inning.

Frankenmuth led by 2-0 in the bottom of the sixth Thursday when Carleton Airport put runners on first and second base with one out. A fly to left field dropped in for another single just in front of senior Alyssa Jarlock. The hit could’ve loaded the bases. 

Instead, Jarlock made perhaps the most astute play of the game. Bypassing the usual toss in to second, she threw to third base and threw out the advancing runner for the second out of the inning.

Wright then struck out the next batter, and the Eagles added a few more runs to put the game away in the seventh.

“That’s what senior leadership does,” said Walraven, a veteran himself of 36 seasons and nearly 1,100 wins to rank as the second-winningest softball coach in MHSAA history. “The one thing you have to worry about with seniors is sometimes they phase out at the end of the year (with) a lot of activities with school. This group stayed focused the whole time, and they talked to the underclassmen. Everybody’s always prepared and ready to play.

“It’s a little bit of the coaches. But it’s mostly on the girls.”

Frankenmuth scored its first two runs in the third inning, with the lone hit of the rally an RBI-single by Wright. Senior Makenzie Sipes, who had reached base on a fielder’s choice, moved to third on the single and scored the second run as part of a double steal that forced a throw to second base and opened up home. 

Senior Kayla Brooks scored in the seventh inning after a single, and Jarlock came around for the fourth run on a ground out after reaching base on an error and stealing second base.

Wright finished with nine strikeouts and walked only one batter. She gave up four hits and only one over the first five innings. Airport junior Emily Bindus also was sharp, giving up only one earned run for the Jets (36-5), striking out nine while giving up only three hits and walking two. 

The win was Frankenmuth’s 12th straight.

“Last year was just kinda like a building year. This year finally the team is just strong. It’s so exciting to watch us just go,” Wright said. “I’ve been wanting this since my freshman year, and now we’re finally here and it’s insane. I love it.” 

Click for the box score.

Wayland 11, St. Clair 0 

Wayland had unfinished work after getting back to the Semifinals last season but falling in 10 innings to Livonia Ladywood. The Wildcats entered this postseason ranked No. 1 in Division 2 as arguably the most impressive team in Michigan this season regardless of division – and only added to that reputation Thursday.

They led 4-0 before St. Clair (23-13) got a chance to bat in the first Semifinal in that school's history. 

Wayland (35-2) added seven more runs in the fifth inning to finish the game for senior pitcher Mallory Teunissen, who struck out more than half the batters she faced – nine of 15 – and allowed only two hits.

“I made sure I said let’s score on the first thing so we don’t have to wait and have stress,” said Teunissen, who also was 2 for 3 at the plate. “My sister Morgan came up and had a hit, and everyone followed, and we scored, and it just made the stress level for everybody and me so much easier.” 

Wayland was playing in its third Semifinal in four seasons. But there was shock and sadness instead of celebration after as coaches and players were told of the death of Bill Merchant, father of assistant coach Nicki Cardosa and brother-in-law to head coach Cheri Ritz, earlier Thursday after an apparent car accident.

Merchant also was Wayland’s junior varsity boys basketball coach. His four daughters all played large roles in the Wayland program – Jessica and Macy appear in the MHSAA record book – and then at the college level, and Jessica, Macy and Brittini coach in the Big Ten. His wife Deb Merchant has coached tennis for Wayland. 

“(I told the players) that we have another angel in the sky, because my dad was killed in a car accident too,” Ritz said. “I was the AD at Wayland, and it was after a basketball game. He was helping me and got in a car accident, so our family has been through this before.

“But we have another angel in the sky.” 

Senior shortstop Hailey Houck had two hits, scored two runs and drove in one for Wayland. Sophomore catcher Leigha Morse also had two hits and three RBI, and senior third baseman Morgan Winger and freshman designated player Sydney Urban both drove in two runs.

Click for the box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Frankenmuth’s Amariah Wright prepares to unload a pitch during Thursday’s Division 2 Semifinal win. (Middle) A Wayland runner grabs for the plate while being tagged by St. Clair catcher Sydney Griffor.

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.)