Trenton, Lakeshore Emerge with 1-Run Semifinal Wins, Advance to Saturday

By Tom Kendra
Special for

June 16, 2022

EAST LANSING – Trenton and Essexville Garber are not used to making long runs in softball.

In fact, most of the players on both teams weren’t even born the last time their schools reached the Softball Semifinals.

The newcomers put on a show Thursday on the state’s biggest stage, with Trenton holding off Garber, 2-1, in a classic pitcher’s duel at sunny, windswept Secchia Stadium.

“We just told them to believe,” said third-year Trenton coach Rick Tanguay. “Believe it’s going to happen and believe you’re going to put the ball in play. I’ve had a lot of these kids since they were 9 or 10 years old, and I’m proud of them.”

Trenton (34-10), which lost in the Division 2 Final in 2005 and had not been back to the Semifinals before this season, will play perennial power Stevensville Lakeshore in Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. championship game. Lakeshore defeated Escanaba, 2-1, in Thursday’s last Semifinal.

The Trojans had to come from behind to advance, after Garber jumped out to a 1-0 lead during the first inning.

Kortney Kotenko, a junior catcher, belted an RBI double to bring the big crowd from Essexville to its feet. The Dukes previously lost in the Class B Final in 1997, but hadn’t been back to the state’s Final Four until Thursday.

Garber would keep that 1-0 lead until the fifth inning, as junior pitcher Sarah Basket kept the Trojans off-balance.

Trenton finally broke through by manufacturing single runs in the fifth and sixth innings. Pinch-runner Jordyn Emery scored on a fielding error in the fifth, then sophomore shortstop London Williams singled to left in the sixth inning to score Maddie Dobbs.

Those two runs would prove to be just enough as Trenton senior pitcher Aila Johnson turned back Garber’s last-chance, seventh-inning rally.

The Dukes put the pressure on, as Basket singled and then Jacqueline Brinkman was hit by a pitch. After a double steal, Garber had runners on second and third with two outs, before Johnson was able to shut the door with a strikeout.

“I have to be confident out there for my team, but that last inning was rough,” Johnson said with a smile. “I was trying to hide it, but I was nervous out there.”

Johnson may have been battling nerves on the inside, but it didn’t show in her stellar performance. The Siena Heights commit finished with just four strikeouts, but she kept the Dukes guessing for most of the game and allowed just four hits and one walk.

Tanguay said it was a classic performance by the battery of Johnson and her senior catcher, Olivia Hickman, who are two of just four seniors on the Trojans’ 16-player roster.

“Aila doesn’t get a lot of love; she doesn’t get a lot of press,” said Tanguay. “She’s not one of the top 10 (ranked) pitchers in the state, but she comes out and she’s a workhorse and she does it.”

Matching her every pitch along the way was Basket, a junior, who finished with a five-hitter, no walks, one earned run and nine strikeouts.

Garber (35-9) is an even younger team than Trenton, with just three seniors on the 16-player roster. The Dukes relied on their stellar junior class to pull out several come-from-behind victories in Districts and Regionals en route to MSU.

“You know, this is the first time we’ve been this far in 25 years – and 25 is a long time,” said second-year Garber coach Chris Kokaly. “Losing by one run is hard because you think about all of the opportunities we had where we just needed a key hit. We’ve been getting those hits all season and today, it just didn’t happen.”

Click for the full box score.

Stevensville Lakeshore 2, Escanaba 1

Lakeshore advanced to the championship game despite having just two hits in the Semifinal, both of them singles.

The Lancers (39-4) played small ball and took advantage of Escanaba miscues to manufacture single runs in the first inning and the sixth inning, and that proved to be just enough.

Lakeshore/Escanaba softball“The girls believe in their pitchers and their defense,” said 43rd-year Lakeshore coach Denny Dock, who ranks third in state softball history with 1,055 victories. “If we could get our bats out of the deep freeze, we’d be pretty good.”

Lakeshore’s pitching combination of junior Ava Mullen and sophomore Avery Atwood was outstanding, combining on a three-hitter.

Mullen set the tone by getting the first five outs of the game by strikeout. She kept cruising until the top of the sixth inning, when Escanaba used a walk and a solid single to right field by senior Lizzy Silva to tie the game, 1-1. After McKayla Mott singled, Dock decided to make a pitching change – bringing in Atwood with two runners on and two outs.

To say the decision turned out good is an understatement.

Atwood got the next hitter to pop out to the catcher on her first pitch, then struck out the side in the top of the seventh to get the win.

“I knew that Avery would do great, and she did,” said Mullen, who finished with 10 strikeouts. “I’m super proud of this team. We’ve worked on our attitudes and staying positive, and I really think that was a big reason why we won today.”

Gianna Kerschbaum and Gabby Solloway had the lone hits for Lakeshore, which has scored just five runs over its last three games – all wins – including a 2-1 victory over Wayland in the Regional Final and a 1-0 win over Jackson Northwest in Tuesday’s Quarterfinal.

Dock, also the longtime football coach at Lakeshore, has led Lancers softball to seven Finals championships, the most recent in 2015. Lakeshore finished runner-up in Division 2 in 2019.

Escanaba (30-6), which won Division 2 titles in 2018 and 2019 and made the Semifinals for the fifth time in six seasons, was out of sorts from the start Thursday. Mott relieved the starting pitcher after two walks and a wild pitch and threw most of the game, before freshman Grayson LaMarche relieved her in the fifth inning and took the loss.

“When two great teams play it comes down to a couple of plays, and that’s what happened today,” said second-year Escanaba coach Andy Fields. “Overall, this season was a phenomenal ride.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Trenton’s Jordyn Emery scores her team’s first run in the fifth inning Thursday. (Middle) A Lakeshore runner gets across the plate just before the tag by Escanaba’s Carney Salo.

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.)