Tourney-Tested Scots Setting Bar High Again

April 24, 2019

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half

CALEDONIA – The Caledonia softball team celebrated the program’s first MHSAA championship a year ago with a 6-4 win over Hartland in the MHSAA Division 1 Final.

With 11 players from that squad back, there’s a strong belief the Fighting Scots have the potential to make a similar postseason run.

“We want to live up to what we did last year a little bit,” senior infielder Brooklynne Siewertsen said. “Everybody thinks that we’re not going to be as good because we lost our star pitcher, but we can be just as good with the pitchers we have. We just need to step up our defense a little bit and show that we belong.”

Caledonia graduated only four seniors last spring. But the headliner of that group was starting pitcher Sammie Gehrls, who’s currently playing at Grand Valley State after earning all-state honors in the circle all four years of high school and leaving with eight entries for hitting in the MHSAA record book.

“She’s only one player, but she’s tough to replace,” 18th-year Caledonia coach Tom Kaechele said. “She did so many things for us on the mound and what have you.”

The Fighting Scots, who entered the week ranked No. 7 in Division 1, have a capable stable of pitchers to fill the void but have suffered early setbacks.

Their No. 1 pitcher, junior Emallee Hamp, can’t throw right now due to an injury, while senior starting catcher Taylor Cross also is sidelined due to an injury suffered in a scrimmage.

“We’re still trying to find the right pieces,” Kaechele said. “Just playing the right pieces and having girls feel comfortable with whoever is on the mound and realizing that they have to play more defense than they did with Sammie. We’re not going to get those 10 or 12-strikeout games.”

But with the bulk of its roster having experienced last year’s success, Caledonia understands what needs to be done to play at a high level.

“We know what it’s like to play at that level, and we know what we are capable of,” Fighting Scots junior Abby Mitchell said. “We’ve already grown tremendously from our first game, and we are all ready to keep getting after it in the coming weeks.”

Added Siewertsen: “It helps tremendously to have a lot of returners because we all know what it takes to get back there (to the Finals). We have a lot of grit and determination.”

The Fighting Scots, who also return seniors Ashleigh VanZytveld, Sage Turner, Jadon Huyser, Erika Dunham, Brenna Nurenberg and Julia Becker and junior Megan Claery, already have seen the effects of being the reigning champions.

Opposing teams aren’t making it easy, and that was obvious in Monday’s 20-13 extra-inning win over Ottawa-Kent Conference Red rival Rockford.

“It’s hard because you have a target on your back and everyone wants to beat you because you are the defending state champs,” Kaechele said. “So it doesn’t matter which team it is because they are going to come out and try to give you the best they have. Rockford never gave up against us and kept coming at us and fighting.”

This year’s team has a close-knit bond and motivates each other daily.

“We all get along really well and push each other in practice and games,” Mitchell said. “We all have so much fun playing the game together, which makes the opportunity to play with these girls incredible.”

Mitchell joined Gehrls in making the all-state first team last season, and Cross earned an honorable mention. Kaechele knew he had a majority of his big bats returning to the lineup, but defense would have to be improved.

“Because of the hitting we had coming back I thought we could be very good coming into the season. But I also knew we had to play better defense, and that’s one thing we’re still trying to work on,” he said. “Just getting our defense back to where it was last year.”

The Fighting Scots are off to a 7-4 start and compete in a highly-competitive O-K Red with the likes of state powerhouses Grandville and Hudsonville, both honorable mentions in the latest Division 1 rankings.

Caledonia didn’t win the conference crown last season, but played well down the stretch en route to its historic feat.

“Once we got on a roll last year we were so dialed in as a team, and we wanted it really bad,” Kaechele said. “We have to get that mindset back and hopefully we can put it all together and get the confidence we need and get some players back that will help us.”

Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Caledonia’s Jadon Huyser is congratulated by assistant coach Amanda Kimes after tripling during last season’s Division 1 Final against Hartland. (Middle) Brooklynne Siewertsen fires a throw to first during the Fighting Scots’ Semifinal win over Warren Regina.

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.)