GRAND CHUTE — The script couldn’t have been written any better.
Trailing Sun Prairie 4-2 with two outs in the bottom of the sixth and time running out in the Division 1 state championship game, Eau Claire North sent its last great hope to the plate.
Sam Stange, the man every blue-clad fan in the stadium wanted to see in that moment, stepped into the box.
The newly-minted state player of the year got a pitch he liked. And he didn’t miss.
The slugger crushed a ball deep into the night, far beyond the reach of a leaping Cardinals rightfielder over the fence for a three-run homer.
The blast gave North a 5-4 lead, and the Huskies were mobbing each other in a dogpile a few minutes later with a new adjective to describe them: state champions.
“(I was) just trying to hit a ball hard,” Stange said. “He left a changeup up, and I was able to jump on it. ... It was definitely in the back of my mind that I was the go-ahead run, but I wasn’t expecting anything like that to happen.”
Speak for yourself, said shortstop Carter Hesselman.
“He’s something else,” he said. “Right off the bat, I knew for a fact that was gone. Even if it’s however deep, 365, 380 feet over there, I was just like, ‘That is gone.’”
It was a moment that will live in North history forever, one of the Huskies’ greatest athletes coming up with an iconic moment when hope was fading to deliver a state title.
It’s the type of thing kids dream of when they’re hitting in their backyard. Just like Sam did, according to his older brother Zac.
“We played out moments like this in our driveway 15 years ago,” Zac tweeted shortly after the win.
Longtime North coach Bob Johnson has been around baseball a while. Not even he had seen something like this before.
“That’s an amazing moment. It’s something you dream of. We needed someone to be a hero, and he stepped up with two guys on and put us up by one. Unbelievable,” Johnson said.
It wasn’t a one-man show though. The Huskies got an outstanding start on the mound from Austin Goetsch, who went 5.2 innings and held the Cardinals to three runs — just one of which was earned.
“All we asked for was an opportunity to stay in this game and have a chance to win it. He pitched into the sixth inning. I’m so proud of that young man,” Johnson said.
And then there was Joe Feck, the catcher who fired the opening salvo with a two-RBI double in the second inning to put North (25-4) ahead 2-0.
That lead was trimmed to one run in the top of the third when Sun Prairie’s Spencer Bartel notched an RBI single. The 2-1 score held until the sixth inning, when the Huskies’ defense unraveled.
North committed two errors in the frame, and the Cardinals (24-8) made them pay. One run scored on an error, and Carson Shepard ripped a two-RBI double to put Sun Prairie up 4-2.
“We had a little trouble there in a few innings with some errors,” Hesselman said.
No worries. The Huskies just had to let Stange do his thing. Gabe O’Brien started things off with a two-out single in the sixth. Hesselman followed with a walk. And Stange followed with the play of the year.
“With two outs, never give up,” O’Brien said. “I got on, he drove me in. That’s what we practice, right there.”
Joel Zachow pitched a scoreless seventh inning to earn the win, and the celebration was on.
“It’s kind of hard to put into words right now,” Stange said. “It’s one of the best feelings ever. I’m sure we’ll be able to look back on it a little bit, but for now it’s just pure elation.”
It’s the first baseball state championship for North since 2011. And it’s one they’ll remember for a long time, especially considering the ways they’ve fallen short in three consecutive heartbreaking trips to state before this year.
“Since 2011, everybody’s been wanting to get here, wanting to do well,” Hesselman said. “After our last three years and how we’ve done, it just feels so good to finally break through and get one.”
And now North is back at the summit of high school baseball in Wisconsin once again.
“It’s something you always dream about growing up as a kid. To see it happen is unbelievable. I’ll never forget it,” O’Brien said.
North 5, Sun Prairie 4
Sun Prairie 001 003 0 — 4 4 2
North 020 003 X — 5 8 4
WP: Joel Zachow (1.1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K). LP: Logan Lange (4.2 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 6 K).
Leading hitters — North: Gabe O’Brien 2-4, Keegan Dehnke 2-3 (2B), Joe Feck 1-3 (2B, 2 RBI), Sam Stange 1-3 (HR, 3 RBI).
Records: North 25-4, Sun Prairie 24-8.