GRAND CHUTE — All things considered, the Eau Claire North pitching staff is in pretty good shape.
If the Huskies would have been told they’d have their No. 3 and 4 pitchers available to go in a winner-take-all state championship game, they’d take it in a heartbeat. Especially given the circumstances that actually played out.
After surrendering 12 runs in their Division 1 quarterfinal win over Sussex Hamilton on Tuesday at Fox Cities Stadium, the Huskies’ pitching looked to be in dire straits. Carter Hesselman and Sam Stange, their top two arms, had both thrown too many pitches to be eligible to pitch in Thursday’s championship. And with a semifinal still left to play that night, the Huskies needed to get seven more innings out of the staff.
That’s exactly what they got. Hesselman and Stange both pitched in relief of starter Austin Goetsch to keep his pitch count below the limit and keep him eligible for today’s state championship game against Sun Prairie. The same was true for Xavier Bembnister, who also threw in relief in North’s 8-4 win over Fond du Lac late on Tuesday.
“The pitch count is really difficult to navigate,” North coach Bob Johnson said following the team’s semifinal victory.
“It’s really, really hard to pull a kid like Austin Goetsch out of a game today when he’s cruising right along and things are looking really good. But you have to plan for the week, you have to have the arms you want against a good Sun Prairie team.”
Pitchers are not allowed to exceed 100 pitches in a day, and are required to have at least two days of rest if they throw between 50 and 75 pitches. Both Hesselman and Stange hit or neared that 50-75 benchmark in the quarterfinals, meaning their pitching would have to be confined to Tuesday’s games.
That gave Johnson the challenge of getting the most out of his top two guys to give Goetsch and Bembnister a shot to pitch in the state title game.
The Huskies pulled Goetsch after two innings in the semifinals, boosted by a 2-0 lead on the scoreboard. Bembnister pitched the next 2.1 innings, and exited with North up 7-3. Stange and Hesselman finished off the rest of the game without exceeding their 100 pitch limit for the day, preventing North from having to burn another arm to reach the finish line.
“I think we’re comfortable with what we have,” Stange said. “We only used up two pitchers. ... We have four or five guys we have ready to go on Thursday, and I think we’re confident with what we have.”
Hesselman agreed. He’s not worried about not being able to take the mound with the gold trophy on the line.
“I’m pretty confident in anybody we throw out there,” Hesselman said.
North has played some of its best baseball during the first inning of its two state tournament games so far.
The Huskies scored six runs in the first frame of their quarterfinal win, and two more against Fond du Lac in the semifinals.
“The dugout picks up everyone. It’s loud, everyone wants to hit the ball, start out hot,” senior Gabe O’Brien said.
O’Brien and Stange have been particularly hot for the Huskies. O’Brien is 7 for 10 with two doubles and a triple. Stange is 5 for 9 with two triples and six RBIs.
“It’s a tough thing to get going in the first inning,” Stange said. “It was really cool to see our approaches in the first inning — to play small ball, move the runners over and get timely hitting.”
North’s 3-3 start to the year seems like it might as well have been in another season. The Huskies have won 10 games in a row, and 21 of their last 22.
“Early in the season, a lot of people didn’t think we’d make it this far, including some people in our program too,” Hesselman said. “It’s really cool to see how this group has evolved as a team and pretty much as a family. To see us doing so well late in the season, it’s really cool.”
They’ve exceeded their own expectations.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” O’Brien said. “At the beginning of the year, I don’t know if anyone knew we’d be where we are today. It’s just progressed every single day, it’s amazing.”
Blue chip ‘ship
The state championship game will pit two of Wisconsin high school baseball’s elite programs against one another.
North and Sun Prairie have won a combined four state championships since 2010 and have made 11 trips to state.
The Cardinals ran through a gauntlet to reach the state title game, beating Oak Creek in the quarterfinals and Burlington in the semifinals. Both were ranked in the top 10 in Division 1.
“Sun Prairie has a great history, a ton of depth. That’s going to be a tough challenge for us,” Johnson said.