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Baseball: Ellsworth's pride for 2018 season outweighs sting of final loss

Ellsworth baseball coach Ryan Christenson and Ryan McGregor share one final moment as coach and player after the Panthers' 6-3 WIAA state semifinal loss to the Waupun Warriors on Wednesday, June 13. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia

For the first time all season, after their 6-3 state semifinal loss to the Waupun Warriors, the Ellsworth Panthers baseball team fell victim to the single-elimination playoffs; there was no celebratory dogpile, no dumping of ice cold water on head coach Ryan Christenson and no looking on to the next game of the 2018 season.

There was season-ending sting, watery eyes and low-hanging heads, but there was also the realization of what this year's Panthers team has accomplished: ending Ellsworth's five-year state tournament drought.

"This is something I'll never forget," Ellsworth senior Drake Flom said after his final game as a Panther. "It's my first state appearance. This was my last hurrah. I remember we talked at the beginning of the season, coach (Christenson) said we needed to go out with a bang, and this was pretty special."

The 2018 Panthers team was the first to represent Ellsworth in the WIAA State Baseball Tournament since 2013, and they played as though their advancement to Fox Cities Stadium was no fluke.

The Panthers faced Waupun's Brenden Bille who boasted a .45 ERA before taking the mound on Wednesday, June 13. The senior pitcher only allowed five hits throughout the game, but the Panthers held their own in the second inning when senior Owen Matzek, freshman Caleb Boelter and junior Jon Cain all connected at the plate. Matzek led off the inning with a single to left field and scored the first Ellsworth run on an error. Boelter doubled to center field, and Cain kept the Panthers alive to allow Boelter to score on a wild pitch during Cole Woodland's at bat. Cain and Matzek both finished 2-for-3 at the plate to lead Ellsworth Wednesday night.

Waupun's Caleb Sauer managed a one-run double off of Ellsworth's Ryan McGregor in the first, but Matzek and Boelter's RBI gave the Panthers a 2-1 advantage after two innings. The Panthers extended their lead to 3-1 in the fourth when Cain singled on a hard ground ball, allowing Matzek to score once again, but the Warriors took away Ellsworth's gusto in the bottom of the fourth by forcing two Panther errors and adding three runs off of singles from Keegan Hartgerink and Brayden Sanders.

Waupon set the final score at 6-3 when Bradyn VandeZande hit a two-run double off of McGregor in the bottom of the sixth. McGregor finished his last trip to the mound with two earned runs on seven hits. He recorded three strikeouts to Bille's 10.

In the top of the seventh, Bille earned two strikeouts, walked Flom and ended Ellsworth's 16-7 season by only allowing a pop up to McGregor.

McGregor, who finished his senior season with All-Conference and All-District honors, a batting average of .578 and an ERA of 2.74, still managed to give a trademark smile and find appreciation for the 2018 season after recording Ellsworth's final out of the semifinal game.

When asked what he hoped he and his fellow seniors — Flom, Matzek and Shane Elsen — left their underclassmen with at the conclusion of their year, McGregor answered: "The love of the game.

"We've loved playing with each other," McGregor continued. "We just wanted to show them how fun baseball can be. When you come together and play the game right, you end up here."

Based on the amount of freshmen, sophomores and juniors who lined up to hug and thank the class of 2018 at the conclusion of Wednesday night's game, it's safe to say that McGregor's lesson has caught on.

"It was just a really fun season with all of the guys, and this tops it off," McGregor said. "Even though we lost the first game, it's still a great experience. A lot of teams don't get to play here. I'm really proud of our team."

"These kids just care about each and every one of each other," Christenson said of his players, "and I think the most disappointing thing about today is that it's the last game we'll be able to play all together."

Christenson, who's been along for the entirety of the 2018 seniors' time as Panthers, will struggle saying goodbye to Flom, Elsen, Matzek and McGregor, but knows their lasting impact on Ellsworth baseball will outlast their time as members of the Panthers baseball team.

"My hat goes off to the four seniors," Christenson said. "They are amazing individuals and they will do amazing things in this world. There are going to be some positive ripples years down the road that they're going to leave for us. To get us back here for the first time in five years, this team, led by those four seniors, we're going to see a lot of good things down the road."

While some walked off the field sunken by disappointment, Flom and McGregor held onto their pride and love for the 2018 season to get them through their career-ending loss.

"The way we pulled through at the end of the season was probably the best experience to be a part of," Flom said. "Taking those two wins at sectionals ... Yeah, those are moments you don't forget. Then to top it off here ... How much more can you ask for?"

"I'm glad it ended here," McGregor added.

"Stepping off of this field," Flom said, "my feet feel pretty good."

Waupun will play Jefferson at 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 14 in the WIAA Division 2 State Championship.