Sam Stange could have expected to have a shot at winning Wisconsin’s state hockey player of the year award.
But to do the same thing on the baseball diamond a few months later? No, not even he saw that one coming.
“I think the biggest thing on everybody’s mind was team success this year,” said Stange, who helped lead Eau Claire North to a Division 1 state title. “Obviously that happened so that’s something I’m more proud of, but (winning player of the year) was definitely a nice surprise.”
And it was a surprise that was every bit deserved. The Huskies’ slugger hit .533 with 26 extra-base hits — including seven homers — and drove in 41 runs to help North lift the gold trophy when all was said and done at the state tournament earlier this month.
It was more than enough to earn him another honor: 2019 Leader-Telegram All-Area baseball player of the year.
Stange made the jump from second team all-state outfielder as a junior last year to Division 1 player of the year in his final season of baseball. There was no noticeable change to his game between then and now.
It was simply a case of always looking to improve on the day before.
“I think it was just knowing it was my last year playing baseball and wanting to make the most of every day,” Stange said. “I think our whole team just wanted to get better every single day, and our coaching staff was obviously happy to help with that. They do an incredible job, so I was lucky to have that.”
That “lucky to have you” feeling is mutual, according to North coach Bob Johnson.
“Sam is special, you watch him on the ice rink or baseball field and you can see what kind of athlete he is,” Johnson said following the team’s victory in the sectional finals. “He’s so modest. He’s in charge of at-bats. He leads by example and that’s contagious.”
Stange’s punishing swing from the left-handed batter’s box left plenty of pitchers dejected this season. Take the state tournament, for example. He went 6 for 12 in three games at Fox Cities Stadium, ripping two triples, a homer and nine RBIs.
That homer, of course, came in the bottom of the sixth inning of the state championship game with North trailing Sun Prairie 4-2. The blast over the right field wall plated three runs and proved to be the game winner, an iconic moment that delivered a state title from the state’s top hitter.
“Goosebumps, every time I watch it,” Stange said.
Yeah, he’s watched the replay a few times.
“It’s kind of cool to have seen my view of it, and now to see what everybody else saw,” he said. “Just a special moment.”
The home run came with North down to its final four outs to mount a rally. And in that moment, there was nobody better for the Huskies to send to the plate than an athlete who has faced more pressure than anybody on the field.
Stange also played a big role on the Huskies’ pitching staff, going 7-1 on the year with a 2.06 ERA in 51 innings of work.
There isn’t much more baseball left in Stange’s immediate future, if any. He said he might try to play a couple of summer league games if he gets the chance before he heads to Sioux City, where he will play in the United States Hockey League next season to prepare to become a member of the Wisconsin Badgers squad in the future.
If the state championship game was indeed the final competitive baseball game he plays, he couldn’t have asked for a better storybook ending: his final swing of the bat bringing a state championship back to Eau Claire.
“Building up to that point, we were playing for all the seniors that had been there the last few years and everybody who had a part in it,” Stange said. “To see people reach out after and congratulate us on getting it done, it was really cool.”