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Baseball: Proud Block excited to watch state-bound Panthers

The Ellsworth Panthers are headed to the 2018 WIAA State Baseball Tournament where they'll face the Waupun Warriors in the state semifinals on Wednesday, June 13 at approximately 8:30 p.m. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 3
Young Panther fans stood outside Ellsworth Middle School on Tuesday, June 12 to greet the state-bound Panthers before they headed off to the 2018 WIAA State Baseball Tournament. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 3
Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery sent off the Panthers with a congratulatory sign before they headed off to the WIAA State Baseball Tournament on Tuesday, June 12. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 3

Former Ellsworth head baseball coach Steve Block made a point of watching the reactions of his former players and assistant coach as Shane Lange scored the winning run of the Panthers' sectional championship game on Tuesday, June 5.

"I was really excited for them, and actually, I was watching their reactions," Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Block said. "That never gets old."

Block had the opportunity to coach a handful of Ellsworth's 2018 varsity players — Shane Elsen, Drake Flom, Lucas Kemmerer, Alex Matzek, Ryan McGregor and Cole Woodland — before retiring in 2016. Ellsworth's current head coach Ryan Christenson assisted Block for 10 years before being promoted to head coaching duties and being handed the responsibilities of preserving Ellsworth's prominent baseball legacy.

If you ask Block, Christenson and his state-bound team have done a sufficient job of carrying the torch.

"For teams to have success at tournament time, their best players have to play their best ball," Block said, and he admits that's easier said than done. "They have to be able to relax enough to trust all the training that they've had. In single-elimination tournaments, good things have to happen and your best players have to play their best ball. That's what happened for (Ellsworth)."

Block has noticed many transformations in his former players, who were once scrawny sophomores and freshmen, over the past few years while taking in Ellsworth baseball games from bleacher seats instead of dugouts.

"They're definitely bigger and stronger than they were," Block said. But he's witnessed more than just physical changes in the Panthers' upperclassmen. "Just watching them, they looked pretty relaxed and they looked like they wanted to be the guy when they were up to the plate and when they were in the field. That's what I really noticed. They played well in the past, but not quite to this extent.

"To see them progress and to see how they approached tournament time this year mentally ... It was really cool to see the coaches, because obviously, a couple of those were players of mine, and after as many years that I spent with Ryan (Christenson), it was just really neat to see the dynamics and to know how much hard work was put into this."

Block's proudest moment came when he watched his once mentee hoist up a sectional title trophy with his team in Viroqua.

"Everybody has got to do it their own way, and coach Christenson has done it his own way," Block said. "He's picked the best of the best, and just to watch the evolvement with him as a head coach was like me being a dad and just being thrilled to death for him. It's so exciting."

Since coaching Ellsworth's 2012 and 2013 teams to the WIAA State Tournament with Christenson, Block has brought his coaching talents to Madison where he assists his second-oldest son in coaching the University of Wisconsin's club team. Block and his son have coached their team to a Club World Series, but for the former Ellsworth coach, nothing compares to a high school state tournament.

"We had success and we were down at the Club World Series in North Carolina, but nothing takes the place of going to a state tournament in high school," Block said. "You have a common thing with the kids you grew up with."

No matter the outcome of the Panthers' Wednesday, June 13, state semifinals game against the Waupun Warriors, Block hopes Christenson's 2018 team cherishes the moments in Appleton the way his '12 and '13 teams did.

"You just hope that they have a great experience," Block said. "They just have to play their best ball for seven innings. It's really exciting, and I'm really excited to be there."

The Panthers' game against the Warriors is scheduled to begin 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Mosinee vs. Jefferson game, which will start at 6 p.m. on Wednesday. Both Division 2 state semifinal games will be held at Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute.