Vicksburg, Richmond Earn Title Chance

June 16, 2016

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING — Avery Slancik of Vicksburg could empathize with her rivals in the pitching circle.

She's been where Livonia Ladywood's Rozlyn Price and Alexa Flores were Thursday. At some point, every pitcher has.

Slancik and her Vicksburg teammates took advantage of eight walks while hitting safely out of the infield only once, rallying from a 5-0 deficit to beat the second-ranked Blazers 7-5 in the MHSAA Division 2 Softball Semifinals at Michigan State University.

Slancik, a sophomore, remembers how she felt after the Bulldogs were eliminated in the Regional championship game last year.

"I had a similar situation last year when I gave up some home runs and our team got knocked out," Slancik said. "I feel for the pitcher. She pitched her butt off."

It was nearly a repeat of last year for Slancik, who gave up back-to-back doubles to begin the game, then surrendered a two-run homer to Price in the third inning. At that point it looked bleak for Vicksburg, trailing the tournament-tested Blazers by a 5-0 margin.

However, Slancik didn't allow another run or hit over the final four innings.

"I know my team has my back, and they can hit," Slancik said. "Whether I give up a home run, base hit or whatever, we can come back strong. We never quit. It all comes down to stress, if you can take the pressure. That's why I practice. I worked my whole life for this, and it's happening. It's like a dream come true. I know God put me in this position for a reason."

Vicksburg, unranked all season, will take a 36-8 record into the Division 2 championship game at 12:30 p.m. Saturday against Richmond at MSU's Secchia Stadium. It's the first time a team from Vicksburg had made it to an MHSAA championship game in any sport. The Bulldogs won championships in the non-bracketed sports of boys cross country (1963) and boys tennis (1974). Only three other teams from Vicksburg reached an MHSAA Semifinal, with the boys soccer team losing in 1997 and 2004 and the baseball team losing in 2015.

The Bulldogs reached the title game by beating three top-10 teams in their last four games: No. 9 St. Joseph in the Regional Semifinal, No. 10 and reigning champion Wayland in the MHSAA Quarterfinals and No. 2 Ladywood (32-13) on Thursday. Richmond (31-9) received only honorable mention in the final coaches' poll, setting up an unlikely Final.

"We haven't even been honorable mention," Vicksburg coach Paul Gephart said. "We've beaten teams that are ranked and haven't been given any respect at all. Yeah, it's awesome. Between Tuesday and today, we've earned a little bit of respect. We just find a way. I always tell them, 'Find a way.' We didn't really hit the ball well, but we found a way."

Vicksburg hit only three balls out of the infield in the entire game: a single up the middle by Carlie Kudary and two fly-outs to left field. The Bulldogs' other four hits were infield singles.

Epitomizing Vicksburg's "find a way" approach was junior catcher Grace Stock, who came to the plate four times but didn't have an official at-bat. She walked three times and had a bunt. One of her walks, on a 3-2 pitch, forced home a run.

"I was confident up to bat," Stock said. "I tried to swing at good pitches and let the bad ones go by and get on base to help my team. I did whatever it took. Get on base, score runs and be smart at the plate. We got on base any way we could and used our strengths."

Ladywood jumped out to its 5-0 lead with three runs in the first inning and two in the third. Flores led off the game with a double and scored when Cecilia Werner doubled right after her. Werner scored on a single by Elizabeth Kemp.

A two-run homer by Price over the 220-foot sign in center field made it 5-0 in the third.

The Bulldogs were unfazed.

"The amount of runs we've scored in the whole year, getting five runs is nothing," Slancik said. "We've beaten teams 24-0. We can come back from five runs."

Vicksburg began its comeback by scoring two runs in the bottom of the third inning, with three walks, two wild pitches, a passed ball and one hit helping deliver those runs.

The Bulldogs took the lead in a bizarre fourth inning during which they scored five times without hitting a ball out of the infield.

Olivia Holmes began the rally by leading off with an infield single. After four more walks, a bunt single and an error, Vicksburg had a 7-5 lead. Two runs scored on bases-loaded walks, with another crossing on a wild pitch. 

Ladywood coach Scott Combs pulled his standout pitcher, Price, after her sixth walk of the game with one out in the fourth inning. She was relieved by Flores, who started at first base.

"The ball never left the infield," Combs said. "They did a good job of putting the ball down on the ground and getting a base at a time, but you can't walk (eight) people and expect to win. The disappointing part is we probably haven't walked (eight) in the last 10 games. That's on us."

After falling behind, Ladywood got a runner on base in each of the last three innings, but couldn't get the runner past first. The Blazers had six hits, three for extra bases, in the first 2 1/3 innings before their bats fell silent.

"We always preach the attitude that when you get up by four or five runs, play for one run each inning," Combs said. "A couple of bunts that we didn't get down were important. When you don't do that and people see the ball lasering all over the place, they change their swing and think they're going to hit home runs. It just got a little contagious. I don't want to say they were selfish, but they were trying to over-swing."

Click for the full box score. 

Richmond 5, Escanaba 2

Richmond broke a 2-2 tie by scoring three runs in the top of the fifth inning, reaching the MHSAA championship game for the fourth time. Richmond lost in the title game in 1985, 1998 and 1999. 

"We've had our down points, but over the last couple of games we've started getting key hits and playing to our potential," Richmond pitcher Erin Shuboy said.

Richmond took one-run leads in the second and third innings, only to have Escanaba match those runs in the bottom of those innings. 

No. 8 hitter Emma Caperton, who doubled home a run in the second, singled and scored the tie-breaking run in the fifth on a strange play. Amy Thueme reached first on a throwing error and headed for second after the overthrow. Caperton was going to stop at third, but she continued home when Thueme slid into shortstop Callie Heller, who fell on her and was shaken up.

Lindsay Schweiger and Shuboy singled home the other runs in the inning. Richmond tacked on one more run in the seventh on a single by Rachel Leach. 

Shuboy, who had eight strikeouts, retired 10 of the last 11 batters she faced.

"We still hit the ball hard," said Escanaba coach Jamie Segorski, whose team finished 36-3-1. "Softball's a funny game. You miss the ball by an eighth of an inch and it's a fly ball. You hit it square, it's a home run. It is what it is."

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) A Vicksburg hitter connects during the Division 2 Semifinal against Livonia Ladywood. (Middle) A Richmond runner slides under a tag in her team's win over Escanaba.

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.)