After a less-than-ideal first season in Eau Claire, David LaManna had a sour taste in his mouth.
The Express went 28-43 in 2018, LaManna's first year with the club. When it was time to come back for round two, the Notre Dame catcher wanted to aim much higher.
"Ever since I got here this summer, I've kind of been gung-ho about winning a championship with the team," he said.
Thanks to a fortunate turn of events, that pursuit has been given new life.
The Northwoods League stripped Duluth of five wins last week, dropping the Huskies out of first place in the Great Plains East Division. Nobody benefited more from the move than LaManna and the slumping Express, who rose all the way to first place thanks to their rivals' costly roster rule violation.
"It was kind of surprising, because we thought we were out of the playoffs," said Express outfielder Zach Gilles. "Then we heard about that and all of a sudden we had another shot. It's good to know we're still in it, it gave us some more energy to come out here ready to play."
Entering the final five games of the regular season, Eau Claire is 1.5 games ahead of La Crosse in the division standings. The winner of the division advances to the first round of the playoffs.
The Northwoods League season is split into two halves. The winner of each division in the first half of the season clinches a playoff spot, before the standings reset for the second half. The second-half divisional champions also earn a playoff spot.
Waterloo won the Great Plains East in the first half. Eau Claire is now in the driver's seat in the second half. The first and second half champions play a best-of-three series in the opening round of the postseason.
On August 3, it appeared that the Express had little chance of making the playoffs. They had lost five of their last six games and were three games behind division-leading Duluth in the standings.
Now a few more wins will be enough to punch a ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
"It's a good feeling. We played pretty well in the first half but weren't able to make the playoffs, but we've got the best overall record in the division," LaManna said. "Now we have a good chance of making it. Just have to play well these next couple of games."
It's the time of year in the league where players begin departing their clubs to go back to school and focus on their college baseball careers. That has affected the Express, particularly on the mound, but they're still hopeful they've got enough left in the tank to keep playing into next week.
"We are losing players left and right," Express manager Dale Varsho said. "But we're hoping to bring back a few guys that left us earlier in the summer to compete at a higher level, and see where it takes us."
The Express are in the midst of a four-game series with Bismarck. Eau Claire rallied to win the opener 7-6 on Monday, and returns to action today after Tuesday's day off. Bismarck is in last place in the Great Plains West, and the Express close out the regular season with two games against Waterloo. Although the Bucks won the first half division title, they are 12-16 in the second half.
"We've got some tools in place to do some really good things. It all depends on if we've got enough pitching to really make a run," Varsho said.