Wilkinson Capping Record-Blazing Career

May 17, 2018

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

KALKASKA – Rik Ponstein cuts to the chase when he talks about senior pitcher-centerfielder Makenzie Wilkinson.

“She’s probably the best player I’ve ever coached,” he said.

It’s a telling statement considering Ponstein is in his 34th season coaching softball and – prior to Thursday’s doubleheader with Boyne City – is 11 wins shy of 700 in his career.

He’s coached several good teams, several good players.

Wilkinson pauses, searching for the right words, to respond to her coach’s assessment.

“That’s an honor,” the soon-to-be 18-year-old said. “It amazes me, really.”

Wilkinson is on the verge of becoming the school’s Female Athlete of the Year for the fourth time – the first time that’s happened here.

In basketball, the 5-foot-8 Wilkinson is a two-time all-state player and holds the school record in rebounds (696) and blocks (153). She tied the school mark for 3-pointers in a game (eight) and is fourth all-time in scoring (1,417 points).

In softball, she owns most of the school records, or will by the time the season ends.

“She’s a great competitor,” Dave Dalton, the longtime girls basketball coach, said. “She’s extremely skilled in both sports.”

The Blazers are currently 24-1 in softball, earning an honorable mention in this week’s Division 2 coaches poll.

It’s a veteran team; only two starters graduated off last year’s 37-5 squad that lost to Muskegon Oakridge in the Regionals.

Wilkinson, pitcher-shortstop MaKenzie Leach and rightfielder Taylor Kooistra are the leaders – four-year starters who have paced Kalkaska to a 125-23 record during that span. Wilkinson (60-15) and Leach (58-8) have been the winning pitchers in 118 of those triumphs.

“All three are outstanding,” Ponstein said. “They have melded together to help make this a very good team.”

On the mound, Wilkinson (12-1) and Leach (11-0) provide a formidable combination.

“They’re different type of pitchers,” Ponstein said. “Makenzie Wilkinson is a power pitcher (441 career strikeouts) with a curve. MaKenzie Leach is more of a control pitcher with a good changeup. She’s only walked 70 batters in her career, just four this season. What’s made Makenzie Wilkinson tougher this year is that she’s only walked nine. I tell the girls if you don’t walk them, your teammates will make the plays behind you. The one time we didn’t make the plays, we lost. For the most part, though, we make the plays.”

At the plate, Wilkinson is hitting .545, Kooistra .529 and Leach .475. Wilkinson’s belted six home runs, Kooistra five. They rank one-two on the school’s career list for home runs with 29 and 17, respectively.

The trio are joined in the lineup by Angela Iott at first, Kayla Cavanaugh at second, Jaime Potter at third, Kayleigh Bunker in left and Ayla Gustafson behind the plate. Loren Schwab rotates between shortstop and centerfield, depending on who’s pitching. All are juniors, except Bunker, a senior.

“We’re experienced,” Wilkinson said. “We’ve been around each other a long time. We play well together.”

As for Wilkinson, she comes from an athletic family. Her father, Jeremy, was a football standout at Northern Michigan University and later inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame. He also served as Kalkaska’s football coach until stepping down last November. Makenzie’s mother, Cheri, was a four-sport standout (volleyball, basketball, softball and track) at Kalkaska, She played softball for Ponstein and JV basketball for Dalton. She ran track only her sophomore year, but set the school record in the 400 meters.

“Growing up they always taught me to go all out, give your best every second,” Makenzie said. “Mom always says that the sky’s the limit, to always put forth the effort and put in the extra time.”

“We had lots of conversations about that when she was in middle school,” Cheri said, laughing. “We knew she had gifts (athletically). We knew if she put in the time that later in life it would help her. Now, looking back, she realizes that and has thanked us for pushing her to work hard because it’s paid off.”

Wilkinson has signed to attend school and play basketball at Davenport University, which just transitioned to NCAA Division II. She’s also hoping to play softball.

Softball might be her best sport – and the one she thought she would play in college – but she did not receive many recruiting looks.

“It was a rough road,” Makenzie said. “Nothing really happened.

“It just didn’t pan out,” Cheri added. “Then, Rick Albro (Davenport’s women’s basketball coach) showed interest, and she connected with him. It fell into place. She’s still going to play travel softball this summer. She’s still trying to get her foot in the door at Davenport for softball. She’s been in contact with the coach. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. She’s ready to play basketball. That’s her No. 1 priority.”

There’s a twist to the story. Jeremy Wilkinson is originally from Marlette, and that was one of the first stops on Albro’s coaching journey. Albro coached boys basketball at Marlette from 1974-78.

It promises to be a busy summer for Makenzie. In addition to playing travel softball with the Alpena Mystics, Wilkinson will be taking online classes through Davenport and working on her basketball skills, and lifting, almost daily. She’s currently working with coaches Chuck and Travis Schuba, who both played collegiately.

“I’m trying to get ready for the college level,” she said, “coming off screens quicker, shooting quicker, getting up to the speed of the game.”

Oh, by the way, she’s also working on a construction crew.

If she needs advice about playing at the next level, she can turn to her father.

“(Jeremy) knows what it takes to be a college athlete, and he’s already told her that you have to be ready or it’s going to be a tough road,” Cheri said. “He trained all the time when he was in school and during the summers. He was a kid who didn’t get a lot of attention, but he put the time in and succeeded.”

This past winter, Wilkinson led a small, inexperienced Blazers basketball team to a 17-6 record. She averaged 20.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.4 steals a game.

“I was surprised,” she admitted. “We did pretty well. I was proud of our team.”

The Blazers were ousted in the District by Kingsley, which reached the Class B Semifinals.

Wilkinson was Kalkaska’s go-to player.

“She has an incredible motor and knowledge (of the game),” Dalton said. “She’s strong, she’s fast, she’s super coordinated.”

The Blazers went 78-15 in her four years on varsity, winning three Districts and two Lake Michigan Conference crowns.

As a junior, she was selected to the Detroit Free Press Dream Team.

But those accolades do not define her.

“It’s not all about the recognition,” she said. “I’m not really a person who’s out there about my accomplishments. To me, it’s about giving it your all and having the heart to play.”

Cheri agrees.

“She’s a humble kid, very even-keeled,” she said. “She doesn’t let (awards) go to her head. She’s just a calm kid, who doesn’t talk much.”

Makenzie lets her determined play on the court and field do the talking.

Away from the action, she’s a member of the National Honor Society and in the fall was selected Homecoming queen.

“The students like her and respect her,” Dalton said.

“She’s not a cocky kid,” Cheri said. “She mingles with all the different cliques. She’s a very open kid. I really admire her for that. We’ve always told our kids to stand up for others.”

Right now, she’s having a little problem standing and moving around. She dropped a 25-pound weight on her foot during lifting class Tuesday. X-rays revealed that no bones were broken or fractured, but the foot is swollen and bruised.

“I was putting weight on the squat bar,” she said. “I put a 45 on – I was lucky I didn’t drop that one on my foot – and I went to grab the 25-pound weight off the rack to put on the barbell when I dropped it. I’m just glad it’s not broken or fractured. I’ll be ready to play later this week.”

Ponstein, meanwhile, has always set similar goals for his teams every season – win at least 20 games, and capture conference and District titles. This season, with a veteran cast returning, he added a Regional crown to the mix. The Blazers have never won a Regional under Ponstein.

If the rankings hold, that Regional in Gaylord could include No. 2 Escanaba and No. 8 Oakridge.

What would it mean to break the drought and win a Regional?

“It would be beyond exciting,” Wilkinson said. “It’s a new level when you get into Regionals. To be able to win at that level would be amazing.”

Time will soon tell.

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) Kalkaska’s Makenzie Wilkinson stands in during an at bat this season. (Middle) Wilkinson pulls up for a jumpshot this past winter. (Softball photo by Capture Me Photography; head shot by Patricia Golden; basketball photo by RD Sports Photo.)

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.)