Watervliet Diamond Teams Shining Heading Into District Weekend

By Wes Morgan
Special for MHSAA.com

June 3, 2021

Watervliet took the concept of a banner season to another level this spring as the Panthers posted a pair of perfect seasons in Southwestern Athletic Conference Lakeshore play.

A baseball team with only three seniors went 12-0 in the division and was matched by a softball squad featuring only one senior that also ripped through that half of the league to a 12-0 mark. It was the first division title for the Panthers in softball since 2006 and was a return to the top spot for the baseball team after a championship in 2018.

For 11th-year head coach Josh Tremblay’s baseball program, which is 19-12 heading into Division 3 District tournament play this weekend, it was a result of great starting pitching from junior right hander Andrew Chisek – who racked up an 11-2 record on the bump with a 1.83 ERA – a do-anything-to-get-on-base mentality and superb defense.

The Panthers have a .783 on-base percentage as a team and boast six players with 25 or more hits. Chisek leads the team with 34 hits, while senior outfielder Josh Reeves sits at 31, sophomore first baseman Bryton Cockrun and sophomore pitcher/infielder Tyson Williams have 27 apiece and both freshman pitcher/infielder Wyatt Epple and junior outfielder Ethan Fish have 25. Chisek and Cockrun are tied with a team-high 22 RBI.

Freshman Chase Tremblay and Williams each earned three wins on the mound and helped contribute to a team ERA of 3.59. Senior Evan Hutchins has been a team anchor behind the plate with only 11 passed balls allowed. Chisek has a team-high 66 strikeouts, and Williams is right behind with 60.

“(Chisek) was one of our better pitchers in 2019, and he had a taste of success that year,” Tremblay said of the year Watervliet made it to the Division 3 Regional Semifinals and lost to Bronson. “He was pretty excited about getting back at things. He has been good there for us. We actually have about eight guys that can pitch, but we’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had to do that deep in our rotation. We knew that would be one of our strengths this year that we would be pretty deep in terms of arms.”

Watervliet has given up just 65 walks all season, which has helped out an already phenomenal defense. But with the bats in their hands, the Panthers buttered their bread by bases on balls (103) and taking shots to the body (41).

“We just try to get on base and be pesky. We just try to bang out base hits, run the bases and try to score some runs,” Tremblay said.

Watervliet softballThe Panthers will be pesky for a while with so many players returning next season.

“We’re a really young team, so coming into the year we didn’t really know what we were capable of,” Chisek said. “We figured out we were a really good team, and it has been fun to play with these guys. What clicked for us early on was pitching. All of our pitchers throw strikes, which gives our defense the opportunity to make plays. We started hitting the ball, and that took more pressure off the defense.”

And now their goal is a D3 District title. Watervliet takes on Niles Brandywine on Saturday in the semifinals. The two teams clashed earlier in the year and split a doubleheader.

At 28-5 this year, the Watervliet softball team is riding a 13-game winning streak into the postseason, which begins Friday with a District Semifinal matchup versus Fennville.

In the circle, the Panthers have been anchored by juniors Hannah Hart (11-2) and Haiden Edelberg (14-1). Edelberg has fanned 89 batters with a 2.54 ERA, and Hart has 66 strikeouts with just five walks and a 2.90 ERA.

Head coach Tom Golden’s scrappy young squad has used speed as its primary weapon during a historic season. Besides seven home runs, freshman shortstop Grace Chisek has 61 hits and 60 RBI this year, having stretched 11 of those into doubles and eight into triples en route to a .635 batting average.

“We’ve all played together for so many years, and we connect well,” Chisek said. “Our bonds are good, so being young doesn’t really hurt us. We talk about what the pitcher is throwing and adjust. And there’s just a lot of speed on our team.”

Slapper Sammy Dietz, a sophomore third baseman, also has registered 61 hits with 19 RBI and a team-high 58 stolen bases in the leadoff spot, while freshman Abby Whorton, an outfielder and catcher, has 47 hits with 16 doubles, eight triples, four homers and 52 RBI.

“Our defense is pretty solid because we have athletes, but we’ve had to put up some runs,” Golden said. “Making good choices at the plate, swinging at good pitches and finding a way to get on — not necessarily by just hitting the ball, but by having quality at-bats.

“With our speed, a routine groundball becomes something pretty exciting because we get out of the box pretty quick.”

Rival Coloma has been Watervliet’s biggest hurdle “over the last four or five years,” Golden explained. The Panthers swept Coloma this season, and they will square off again if both teams advance to the District Final as expected.

“They won state a few years ago and have been the top dog,” Golden said. “We finally beat them for the first time since 2016 to win a (SAC) divisional title. That was definitely one of our goals, and we took care of business.

“That’s the thing about this group, is that it doesn’t really matter who we play. We’re a young team with only one senior, but we have a lot of young talent that has played a lot of softball. They just really enjoy going out to play.”

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top)The Panthers baseball and softball teams celebrate their matching SAC Lakeshore championships this spring. (Middle) Watervliet’s Grace Chisek rounds third base on the way home for a softball team bringing a 28-5 record into this weekend. (Photos courtesy of the Watervliet athletic department.)

Algonac Diamond Teams Hope Matching Successes Lead to East Lansing

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)