Top-Ranked Inland Lakes Sets Bar High

May 4, 2017

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

INDIAN RIVER – Rain wiped out a Tuesday doubleheader, but it was not a complete wash for Inland Lakes softball coach Krissi Thompson and her top-ranked Division 4 team.

Thompson learned afterward that the Bulldogs will be honored by the Michigan High School Softball Coaches Association for their cumulative 3.83 grade point average, the highest among softball teams in Division 4.

“In the classroom and on the field, these girls are 100 percent dedicated to what they do,” Thompson said. “We have four 4.0 (grade point average) players and others who are really close.

“I can’t say enough about them. They are amazing kids. You don’t get this every day. We know we have something special here. We’re very fortunate.”

Two of the team’s four seniors, Cloe Mallory and Vanessa Wandrie, are among those sporting 4.0 averages.

Mallory, a four-sport athlete until this school year, signed to play softball at Central Michigan University, where she’ll study biomedical sciences.

“It’s hard juggling sports and school, but it (4.0) shows that I put forth the effort and did the best I could,” the all-state pitcher said.

Wandrie, a three-sport athlete, signed to play for Siena Heights, where she’ll major in biology.

“I’ve worked really hard, academically and athletically,” the shortstop said. “It’s cool to see that hard work pay off.”

That type of work ethic is also paying dividends for the team’s two other seniors, second baseman Kimmy Rorick and catcher Pam Braund. Rorick, a 3.9 student, and Braund, a 3.7, will both attend the University of Detroit Mercy in the fall. Rorick will enroll in an advanced program, where she can earn a master’s degree in five years, to become a physician assistant. Braund will enter the pre-dental program. The two will room together.

“We’ll lean on each other for support, just like we have in high school,” Braund said.

Mallory, Wandrie, Rorick and Braund are four-year starters in softball. They are the sparkplugs for the 16-1 Bulldogs, who reached the MHSAA Quarterfinals two years ago and then lost to Unionville-Sebewaing 1-0 in the Division 4 championship game last June.

They would like nothing better than to capture just the second MHSAA team title in school history – and the first in a bracketed sport. The girls track team won it all in 1979.

“That’s our goal – to make history at Inland Lakes,” Wandrie, who turns 18 today, said. “Last year we came so close to winning it all, and we don’t want to let it slip away again.”

Unionville-Sebewaing, which has won five MHSAA Finals titles in Divisions 3 and 4 over the last 11 years, scratched out a run in the sixth inning and Stanford-bound pitcher Nikki Bauer made it stand.

That near miss is motivating the Bulldogs this season.

“It left a bad taste,” said Braund. “We talk about it every day in practice.”

Most of that runner-up squad is back.

“It’s an extremely veteran team,” Thompson said. “Most of the girls play travel ball throughout the summer so they have a lot of game experience.

“Each year we’ve been getting closer and closer. Then, when we got there (MHSAA Finals), it was like ‘Wow.’ But (the outcome) left us hungry for more. We have high goals.”

Through 17 games, Inland Lakes has outscored the opposition 218-16.  The Bulldogs are hitting .415 as a team.

“We’re a strong hitting team, but we’re pretty strong defensively, too,” Thompson said. “We’re quite solid on both sides. It’s fun to watch them hit, though. I do enjoy that.”

To prepare for the upcoming MHSAA tournament, Inland Lakes ramped up its schedule. The Bulldogs competed in a tournament at Midland Dow last weekend, finishing 2-1 against Division 1 foes, all of whom are ranked.

Inland Lakes opened with a 2-1 eight-inning win over Clarkston, then rallied from a 4-0 deficit to edge Mount Pleasant 6-5 in nine innings. The Bulldogs fell to White Lake Lakeland 5-2 in the final game.

That tournament helped answer some questions since Inland Lakes has been rolling over its competition in the north. Particularly impressive was the comeback win over Mount Pleasant.

“We’re not used to losing,” Rorick said. “It was neat to see that we continued to play hard when we were down, and that we were able to come back. We never give up. Our coaches make sure of that.”

Thompson, who was a pitcher on the school’s 1999 Semifinal team, is in her 15th season as head coach. But she’s the first to admit it’s “not a one-person show.” Her husband, Nate, has been right there along the way, too. Nancy Wandrie has assisted four years, Dan Mallory three.

“They’re amazing,” Thompson said. “They work so great with the kids. Everybody has a certain job and makes sure everything is taken care of.”

Cloe Mallory leads a talented pitching staff that also includes junior Lindsay Van Daele and freshman Grace Henckel.

Mallory – who has also lettered in volleyball, basketball and track – had a procedure on the patellar tendon in her knee in August. That kept her out of volleyball and most of basketball. She opted not to run track and focus solely on softball this spring.

“It was an overuse injury – the continuous pounding from pitching and all the other sports I did,” Mallory said.

The injury has not set her back on the diamond.

“No, not too much at all,” Thompson said. “She’s been taking precautions.”

Mallory entered the season with a career 0.60 earned run average, striking out nearly 50 percent of the batters she faced. She also hit .495 with 20 home runs over her first three years. She’s added another eight home runs to that total this season. But it was her pitching prowess that caught the eye of Central Michigan coach Margo Jonker.

“Cloe is a pitcher with moxie,” Jonker said in a release on signing day. “She owns the circle when she has the ball in her hand. Her mental and physical skills make her a pitcher that one can be excited about.”

Mallory, 18, has been working with two pitching coaches the past few years – Steve Howard of Grand Rapids and Peter Finn of Midland.

“Once I saw (Howard) I gained five to eight miles-per-hour on my pitch,” Mallory said. “He mostly works with form. That helped me because I was all over the place when I was younger. I had to dial it in. (Finn) has helped me with the mental aspect of the game, the strategy, what pitches to throw and when.”

At Inland Lakes, Mallory is one cog in the machine.

“She’s surrounded by 11 other girls that help contribute to make her that good,” Thompson said.

The coach prefers to talk about team and not individuals.

“We’re family oriented,” she said. “That’s what keeps us humble.”

Her players agree.

“We’re a tight-knit group,” Mallory said. “We’re there for each other day in and day out. That’s what brings us our success.”

“Everybody gets along,” Rorick added. “There’s no team drama.”

“We abide by that (family motto),” Wandrie said. “We know we’ve got each other’s back. We know we can rely on each other. I love this group of girls. We’re like sisters. It’s fun to be with them.”

“There’s a togetherness,” Braund concluded. “Someone makes a mistake, everyone is there to pick them up.”

The four captains have played softball together for nearly 10 years, dating back to Little League. Their squads advanced to the state tournament three times, giving coaches an inkling of what was to come.

“It’s a small school (253 students),” Rorick said. “Everybody knows everybody, but growing up with (the other seniors) it’s really given us a connection and it makes it easier on the field because we know what each other is thinking.”

In addition to the four seniors, the varsity roster consists of four juniors (Van Daele, outfielders Sydney DePauw and Maki Henckel and third baseman Madison Milner), two sophomores (outfielders Precious Delos Santos and Mara Clancy) and two freshmen (Henckel and catcher/infielder Amber Passino).

There’s also 13 underclassmen on JV and a growing legion of players in Little League.

“This team has done huge things for our community,” Thompson said. “Softball has taken off like crazy in our town. There are so many young girls now that want to play softball, that want to be part of it. It’s amazing to see. These girls have sparked something here.”

The players have helped foster that growth by mentoring young girls in the Little League program.

“They look up to us,” Rorick said. “It’s nice to see girls eager to do so well and work so hard. It makes me feel like the program is going to keep going farther after we graduate.”

And that competitive edge? Well, it applies to the classroom, too.

“We keep tabs on each other’s grades,” Braund admitted. “We’re competitive.”

Even with the younger players, Braund added, the upperclassmen “instill the importance of academics.”

So, now that the Bulldogs are atop the polls, they would like to remain there and finish it off with a title.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to who is the better team,” Mallory said, “and we’re working really hard to be that team.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Indian River Inland Lakes' Cloe Mallory unloads a pitch during last season's Division 4 championship game. (Middle) Catcher Pam Braund secures a pop fly against Unionville-Sebewaing.

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.)