Every young baseball player dreams of one day stepping out onto a Major League field. Young boys imagine that moment when tens of thousands of fans peer down on them waiting for the next pitch.
For Tanner Kohlhepp and Jack Brown, that dream is no different. The two Eau Claire Memorial graduates have thought about it dozens of times. But in a city without a Major League team, they live in the shadow of another complex, Carson Park, where they’ve been able to fulfill another baseball dream.
After their freshman seasons at Tennessee and Minnesota State, respectively, Kohlhepp and Brown have returned home to join the Eau Claire Express this summer. They now don those same orange and black jerseys they used to sit in the stands cheering for during the summers of their youth.
“When I was younger, I’d watch the games with my dad and family here,” Brown said of playing at Carson Park. “I always kept an eye on the team.”
Brown has always loved the game, according to his mother, Julie Brown-Hietala. When he was 6 years old he had his birthday at the ballpark. Earlier this year, when he was offered a spot on the Express, it didn’t take him long to commit.
“He knew what was at stake, his entire summer,” Brown-Hietala said. “He was willing to give up so much to be on the team because he loves the Express so much.”
His excitement has come through in the early part of this season, according to Express manager Dale Varsho.
“Jack is someone who just loves to be here and just be part of the team,” Varsho said.
For Kohlhepp, the Express are a stepping stone in his baseball career. He views the game a little differently than Brown, according to Varsho.
“Tanner has a goal in his mind that he needs to get better every day,” Varsho said.
Kohlhepp said he’s always known that playing in college and joining a collegiate summer league would be part of his journey if he were to succeed in the sport. Even with his steadfast determination to get better, he still revels in playing in his hometown park.
“I remember coming to games at a young age because I knew this was the level of play that I wanted to play at,” Kohlhepp said.
For his family, it’s nice to have him home. Kohlhepp’s father, Trevor Kohlhepp said it can be tough to have his son so far away for the first time, so it’s exciting to be able to watch his games again.
A return to Eau Claire should offer both players a chance at added playing time after being used sparsely as freshmen. Brown pitched 6.1 innings with the Mavericks, while Kohlhepp accounted for just four with the Volunteers. As the pair look to get back into a rhythm, they’re dealing with the pressure of producing for the hometown fans.
“It’s a humbling feeling knowing that you have a bunch of friends and family behind your back,” Brown said.
It’s not just special for Brown and Kohlhepp, their parents both said it’s exciting to watch their children take the field at Carson Park.
“For me, it’s a proud moment,” Brown-Hietala said of watching her son play for the Express. “It’s always a proud moment when a parent sees their children succeeding in the goals they’ve set for themselves.”
The boys have come a long way together. They began playing as teammates on a Lake Hallie Little League team when they were 11 years old.
“I remember going to Lake Hallie to play a little league game there and (Kohlhepp) was the first one to shake my hand and introduce himself to me,” Brown said.
They kept their friendship throughout high school, where they dominated for the Old Abes last season. And now, after going their separate ways for college, they’re back together, on the field they grew up dreaming of playing on.