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Fish to play for state title

Josh Eidem, Sam Giliuson, Trevor Gutting and Nate Schurman. Back row, Adam Brathol, Nathan Brom, Justin Peterson, Brian Giebel, Rick Wells, Joe Paatalo, Dan Kretovics, Brandon Gilbertson, Dan Morgan, Luke Meier and Ryan Gilbertson. Missing from photo are Seth Bugar, Greg Cheever, Marty Herum, Jason Hunt and Scott Warrington. Bob Burrows photo

The storybook tale of the River Falls Fighting Fish continues.

Three years after moving to River Falls from Spring Valley in an effort to rejuvenate the franchise, the Fish have qualified for the Wisconsin Baseball Association Finals this weekend in Tomahawk.

The Fish, champions of the St. Croix Valley Baseball League, clinched a spot in the 8-team finals with a pair of comeback victories over the weekend in Rib Lake.

Saturday, newcomer Marty Herum hit a three-run blast to help erase a 5-2 deficit against Merrill and spark the Fish to a 7-5 win, while Sunday Adam Stuessel delivered a two-run, Mother Nature-aided double in the top of the eighth to give the Fish a 3-2 victory over the defending state champion Eau Claire Bears.

This weekend will be the first appearance in the state finals for the River Falls team. It qualified three straight years as the Spring Valley Hawks from 2002-04. The last state championship for the Hawks was in 1955.

Fish player-manager Josh Eidem, a member of the Hawks' last state finals qualifying team, said it's been the goal of the River Falls team all year to play for a state title this weekend, and it feels great to accomplish it.

"We admittedly put a lot of pressure on ourselves last weekend, and we didn't play our best baseball," he said. "We kicked the ball around a little bit, had some mental mistakes, and gave two good teams several extra outs. The scary part? We still won two games."

The Fish kicked the ball around to the tune of three errors in the first four innings of their playoff opener against Merrill, and found themselves trailing 5-2 in the fifth despite the strong pitching of Dan Morgan.

"To the credit of our guys, we could have rolled over and started feeling sorry for ourselves," Eidem said. "But we had some guys leading the talk in the dugout, Sam Giliuson in particular, about staying up and staying positive."

The talk paid off in the top of the fifth when Clint Kempf hit a rocket that was misplayed by the left fielder to allow Nathan Brom to score and cut Merrill's lead to 5-3. Then, with Ryan Gilbertson on third and Kempf on second, Herum hit a blast over the left field wall for a three-run home run to give the Fish a 6-5 lead.

Herum just joined the team full-time after leading the River Falls American Legion team to a state tournament appearance and driving in the winning runs for the North team in the American Legion All-Star Game at Miller Park in Milwaukee six days earlier.

"What more can you say about Marty that hasn't been written in the paper?" Eidem said. "A great kid, a great swing, and big situations don't faze him. I guess he can hit with wood too."

Brom added an RBI single in the sixth to make the final 7-5.

Morgan went eight innings on the mound, allowing six hits and four earned runs while striking out four and walking one. Gilbertson pitched a scoreless ninth to earn the save.

Sunday the Fish went up against the defending state champion Eau Claire Bears, who won a rain-shortened five inning game the night before to advance and had two former minor league pitchers fresh and ready to go.

River Falls got a run in the top of the first on a two-out single by Gilbertson to plate Brom, but despite having runners on base in the next seven innings couldn't produce another run and found itself trailing 2-1 in the top of the eighth.

With Herum on second and Tyler Hunter on first, Stuessel hit a rocket that the Bears centerfielder misjudged in the gusty wind. He slipped on the wet grass trying to recover and the ball sailed over his head, allowing Herum to score from second to tie the score and Hunter to race all the way around from first to give the Fish a 3-2 lead.

Pitcher Rick Wells held the Bears scoreless in the final two innings to wrap up his complete-game, four-hit victory, and the Fish were heading to the state finals.

"Joe Paatalo said earlier this season when we were in a little funk, 'There is no luck. You make your own breaks,'" Eidem said about the Fish's veteran first baseman. "That's how I feel about this game. Sure that guy probably should have caught the ball, but darn it, we battled some very god pitching all day long, and Wells threw the heck out of the ball."

The Fish will open WBA Finals play with a quarterfinal game Friday at 9 p.m. in Tomahawk against the Everest Merchants. The winner will advance to the semifinals Saturday at 4:30 p.m. against either the Onalaska Athletics or Brill Millers.

The other side of the bracket features the SCVBL Plum City Blues against the Haugen Knights and the SCVBL Osceola Braves against the Sparta Millers. The WBA state championship game is scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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