Baseball: All contribute in Ellsworth's 'meant to be' sectional championship
The Ellsworth baseball coaching staff pulled its four seniors aside at the start of their 2018 season.
"Coach Voelker and James Georgakas, after one practice, they brought us back and sat us down and said, 'You guys need to realize that your team is good enough to go to state. You guys just have to get them together. Then you can do it.'"
The Panthers (16-6) advanced to the 2018 WIAA Division 2 State Tournament by defeating Wisconsin Dells (15-4) 4-3 on Tuesday, June 5. Ellsworth's four seniors produced seven of their team's seven hits in the game, but the team victory required more than just the seniors carrying their underclassmen to a sectional title.
The Panthers and the Dells were tied 3-3 in the bottom of the seventh inning when freshman Shane Lange stepped up to the plate to lead off his team in the final frame of the game. Lange singled to third base on a pitch from the Dells' Jackson Sveum, and would later go on to score the game's go-ahead run on a wild pitch from Sveum during fellow underclassmen Jared Marson's at bat.
The Dells' catcher scrambled to recover the ball, but wasn't quick enough to tag out Lange at home and prevent the freshman from celebrating the biggest win of his high school career with his teammates who awaited him with a state-bound celebration.
"It was awesome," Lange said. "When I heard (the umpire) say 'safe,' I was like, 'Oh my gosh, we just won the game.'"
Lange's lead-off single was followed by a single from junior Jon Cain who sent a line drive to center field after Lange stole second on Sveum's first wild pitch of the inning, foreshadowing how the game would conclude.
"It was just cool to see us younger guys come in and do our job," Lange said. "These seniors have been so great to me, and this win is just so awesome for them. It just shows how much hard work they've put in. It's just ... it's awesome, it's awesome."
"It's exciting that a freshman who doesn't start varsity can come in and do what he does," senior Shane Elsen said.
Senior Owen Matzek put the Panthers on the board in the bottom of the first by bringing McGregor home after the No. 3 batter doubled on a fly ball to left field.
Ellsworth's starting pitcher, Elsen, held the Dells scoreless for the first two innings, and recorded six strikeouts in his five innings pitched. Elsen gave up a two-run double to Dylan Anchor in the top of the third, but wouldn't surrender another run for his final two innings on the mound.
Senior Drake Flom tied the game up in the following frame by stealing home on a passed ball during freshman Caleb Boelter's at bat, giving Elsen a clean slate on the rubber before Matzek replaced him in the sixth.
All-business Matzek, who's familiar with qualifying for wrestling state tournaments, gave up the Dells' third and final run on a sixth-inning Sveum single, but bounced back when a trip to his first state high school baseball tournament was on the line.
"(Owen) is one of the best competitors I've ever been around," Ellsworth's head coach Ryan Christenson said. "There's definitely nobody who wants to win more than him, and he'll do whatever it takes."
Matzek retired the Dells in the sixth by forcing a pop out to Flom before the Panthers struck again in the sixth with singles from Flom and McGregor.
Tied 3-3 in the top of the fourth, the Panthers' fielders left their fate up to their No. 5-9 batters by retiring the Dells in order. Matzek struck out the first batter to take the plate in the top of the seventh, then Charlie Stuhl showed his worth at second base by diving in the dirt to recover two grounders and keep the Dells' grounders from finding the necessary gaps to earn bases before Lange and Cain did their thing.
"It was absolutely a team victory. It was just meant to be," Christenson said. "You have to have your head in the game to have all of those things go your way, and the boys played the heck out of it. They absolutely deserve it. They went out, they got it, and they're bringing back a sectional title to Ellsworth, which is a good place for it."
Christenson recalled his team's 2017 exit meeting after being doused with a celebratory bucket of ice cold water.
"We had our exit meeting last year after the regional championship when we lost to Prescott," Christenson said. "We brought back 12 players who were on that roster. Going to Appleton was part of all of their team goals.
"For our players to see their vision, their dream unfold in front of our eyes and compete their butts off ... it doesn't get much better than that."
Elsen, Flom, Matzek and McGregor have produced a fun, relaxed, confidence-filled environment for their underclassmen, and after Tuesday's results, it's obvious that their teammates have bought in.
Matzek, though thrilled to be heading to another WIAA state tournament, refused to crack a smile in his team's group picture with Ellsworth's newest sectional title trophy. What will it take for the stoic senior to give the fans a peek at his pearly whites?
Matzek's answer: "If we win state."
Ellsworth, the Sectional 1 champions, will face Sectional 4's Waupun Warriors (23-2), the 2017 Division 2 state runners-up, on Wednesday, June 13, in the state semifinals at Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute. The Ellsworth vs. Waupun game will follow the Mosinee (15-5) vs. Jefferson (18-9) game, which is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. on June 13.