GRAND CHUTE — With their backs against the wall in an unfamiliar place, the Thorp Cardinals didn’t flinch.
Being as red-hot as the Cardinals are tends to inspire that kind of confidence in a team.
Thorp rallied from deficits on two different occasions to defeat Johnson Creek 6-5 in a WIAA Division 4 state semifinal Wednesday at Fox Cities Stadium.
That means the Cardinals’ first-ever trip to the state baseball tournament will yield some hardware. Thorp (14-10) will face defending state champion Athens (20-2) this morning in the championship game.
The Cardinals trailed 4-0 and 5-4 against the Bluejays. Both times, they had an answer.
“It’s kind of the way our season’s been summed up,” Thorp coach Shannon Broda said. “We got behind there, but with the way we’ve been playing, the kids were confident. … This team’s been resilient the whole year.”
Johnson Creek struck first with a big inning in the third, plating four runs. Anthony Purpi and Zach Johnson both drove in two runs apiece with RBI hits.
After they had been silent through the first three innings, that seemed to be the spark Thorp’s bats needed to get going. Reece Drost got the team’s first hit of the game to lead off the fourth, and the Cardinals went on to score two runs on Johnson Creek errors to cut the deficit in half.
“We knew we had to get that first score on the board to break that funk, and once that happened we just kept kind of chipping away,” Broda said.
Thorp leveled the score in the fifth, plating two more runs on two more errors by Johnson Creek.
Johnson put the Bluejays back into the lead with an RBI single in the fifth, his second hit of the game.
“They’re a great team. They hit the ball insanely well,” Thorp starting pitcher Jakob Rosemeyer said of the Bluejays. “That’s probably one of the best teams we’ve ever faced.”
Thorp entered the top of the seventh trailing 5-4. Drost and Ryan Stunkel both reached base to bring Wyatt Denzine to the plate. The junior knocked an RBI single through the right side of the infield, bringing the tying run in to score. Rosemeyer brought the eventual winning run in with a sacrifice fly moments later.
“We don’t have any doubt in any of our teammates,” Rosemeyer said. “We have no doubt at all. We believe that anybody, one through nine, can do something special.”
Rosemeyer pitched four innings and allowed four of Johnson Creek’s runs. The Cardinals turned to Drost on the mound midway through the game, and it paid off. He pitched three innings of one-run baseball and struck out four. He struck out the side in the bottom of the seventh inning to seal the win.
“Emotions were up and down the entire game, and to come out of that with that type of win just feels awesome,” Drost said.
Now the Cardinals are 1-for-1 at the state tournament. One game, one win.
“We’ve been dreaming of this for forever,” Rosemeyer said. “All of our batters came out and executed. The defense was solid. If we made an error we picked our heads up. … We made the plays when we needed to.”
Thorp will face a tough test in its first state championship game. Athens won the title a year ago and has almost its entire team back at state this June. The Fighting Bluejays are playing with a purpose, as a member of their team, Tucker Westfall, died a little over a week ago.
Athens defeated Ithaca 3-1 in Wednesday’s other semifinal.
The Cardinals enter the championship game as winners of 10 of their last 11 games. That’s in stark contrast to the 4-9 start to the season they had.
“For these guys to work as hard and play as well as they have at the end of the year, now to have a chance to bring some hardware home, it’s a great compliment to how these kids have played and their chemistry together,” Broda said.