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Fighting Fish make history

Members of the River Falls Fighting Fish raise the championship trophy after the team defeated the Beef River Bulldogs, 9-8, in the Wisconsin Baseball Association championship game Sunday in Coon Valley. The Fish advanced to the title game with a pair of extra-inning wins on Saturday. Bill Smith photo

It took 59 years for organized amateur baseball to come to River Falls.

It took four years to win the first state championship.

The River Falls Fighting Fish won the first state title in their four-year existence Sunday by defeating the Beef River Bulldogs, 9-8, in the Wisconsin Baseball Association State Championship game in Coon Valley.

The win made history on a number of fronts, coming on the heels of the River Falls Post 121 team's first-ever American Legion state championship earlier this month. It marks the first time in the 62-year existence of the WBA that a community has won both a state legion and state amateur championship.

It also capped a memorable summer for Fish rookies J.P. Feyereisen and Colin Pechacek. Both were members of the Post 121 state championship team before joining the Fish for their playoff run.

Feyereisen, who was MVP of the American Legion state tournament and earned the save in the state title game, was the winning pitcher Sunday for the Fish against Beef River.

"We're really happy to get this title for River Falls; what a summer," Fish player-manager Josh Eidem said. "A legion state championship and a town ball championship, in the same summer, is unheard of. It really shows the strength of the baseball program in River Falls from top to bottom, and a lot of credit needs to go to Ryan Bishop (Wildcat and Post 121 coach) for building this winning tradition."

The WBA title didn't come easy for River Falls. It played a total of 21 innings Saturday, posting a 9-4, 11-inning win over the Mississippi Valley league champions and host Chaseburg-Coon Valley Blues Saturday morning before pulling out a 5-4, 10-inning walk-off victory over the Onalaska Athletics Saturday night.

In Sunday's state title game against Beef River, the Fish spotted the Bulldogs five runs in the top of the first before answering with four runs in the bottom of the inning, highlighted by a three-run home run by Joel Schaffer, who would go on to earn tournament MVP honors.

Feyereisen took over for starter Dan Morgan in the second and held Beef River to two runs over the next four innings while the Fish clawed their way back to take a 9-7 lead.

"That was a tremendous amount of pressure for him, but he handled it and threw the ball great," Eidem said about Feyereisen's first extended action of the year for the Fish.

Beef River got an unearned run off Nate Schurman, the Fish's third pitcher of the game, in the top of the sixth but Schurman kept the Bulldogs off the scoreboard the next two innings before turning the ball over to Paul Johnson, who retired the Bulldogs in order in the ninth to earn the save.

"Nate Schurman had the gutsiest performance of all," Eidem said. "His arm was sore from the previous morning, but he still took the mound for three innings and get us in the lead to get it to the ninth, where Paul Johnson came in and shut the door."

Ryan Gilbertson doubled twice and drove in a pair of runs in the win while Nathan Brom and Adam Stuessel each had two hits and one RBI. Eidem and Joe Paatalo also drove in a run apiece.

Stuessel, who played three games of errorless ball at second base, was named the tournament's defensive MVP.

"We lost count of how many diving plays he made," Eidem said. "Adam hasn't probably gotten enough credit over the years for how outstanding he is defensively, so we were really happy to have him get the award."

Saturday's two victories were highlighted by a pair of gutsy pitching performances by starters Rick Wells and Matt Walker and some late-inning drama.

Wells threw 8 1/3 innings Saturday morning against a tough Chaseburg-Coon Valley team before Gilbertson and Schurman kept the score tied into the 11th inning. A two-run double by Gilbertson and a two-run home run by Schaffer in the top of the 11th lifted River Falls to a 9-4 win.

Walker held an Onalaska team that had scored a total of 29 runs in its previous two games to just four runs through eight innings Saturday night. Three of the Athletic's runs were unearned and the score was tied, 4-4, in the bottom of the tenth when Clint Kempf singled to drive in Marty Herum with the winning run. Johnson pitched two scoreless innings in relief to earn the victory.

Eidem credited the team's mental toughness for getting them through 30 innings of baseball in just over 24 hours.

"There were several moments where we could have folded, however, just like all year this is a team that doesn't panic and believes in each other.

"I am just very proud to be part of such a classy team," he added. "There might have been a more talented team at the finals, but that wasn't more of a team than our guys. This was a weekend where everyone contributed, from top to bottom, and we had to use all of our options to get the job done."

Eidem also praised the large contingent of Fighting Fish fans who made the long trip south for the weekend.

"Our fans...what can I say? We had at least 100 people there each day to cheer us on, despite the two-and-a-half hour drive," he said. "We feel so fortunate to have this community of great people around our ball club, and we draw a lot of energy from their enthusiasm."

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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