The Las Vegas Aces defeated Midland, Mich., for the AAA American Legion World Series championship last season.
Eau Claire Pizza Hut/Post 53 played both, splitting with Las Vegas in regular season play and losing three and four run games to Midland in the Great Lakes Regional.
As the Pizzas reached the semifinals of the regional, that ranked them among the top 32 teams in the nation in a 30-11 season.
So what’s ahead for the two-time state finalists, 2017 champion and 2018 runner-up?
According to veteran head coach Mark Faanes, who registered his 500th win last year and enters his 20th season with a 526-274 record, the goals are the same.
“We expect to contend for a state championship and get back to the regional,” he said. “We should have the players to do that.
“I don’t know much about the other teams but we’ll find out after a couple of our first tournaments how we stack up in the state.”
Post 53 opens a schedule of what again could reach over 40 games Tuesday at Hudson and then heads to Sheboygan for its first multi-team tournament this weekend.
There are also tournaments at La Crosse, DePere and Plover with the highlight being the Pizzas’ 24th River City Classic July 5-7 at Carson Park.
Faanes faces that challenge with a lineup that includes nine returnees from last year of which most were major contributors and nine highly-regarded newcomers.
Heading the veterans are pitchers Levi Schaller and Austin Selz, who are back after pitching some college ball this spring. They combined for a 13-2 record last summer.
Schaller, the Immanuel Lutheran product, was 7-1 with 74 strikeouts in 45 innings and a miniscule 0.47 earned run average while Selz, who pitched prep ball at Memorial, went 6-1 with a 2.22 ERA and 51 K’s in 41 frames.
“We look for Levi and Austin with three years experience and two at the regional to lead the way early,” Faanes said.
That’s a good start but there is more.
“Almost the whole roster can pitch so we should be in good shape there,” Faanes said. “We’ll figure out who our tops guys are after a few tournaments.”
Others back are Logan Rasmussen, who started the final regional game against Midland last summer and has apparently overcome an arm injury this spring at North, and Ethan Kjellberg, who had a 2-1 record last year and played at UW-Stout this spring. Mason Bauer, Connor Stoik and Joel Zachow all saw limited mound work.
The newcomers are headed by Carter Hesselman, Fall Creek’s Marcus Cline, Mondovi’s Jackson Falkner, Mitch Voller and Austin Goetsch, up from last year’s 17-under team, while Jack Fentress could also help.
Joe Feck lends experience behind the plate and will share time with Fentress.
Around the infield, Faanes lists Cooper Kapanke and Kjellberg at first, Zachow, Cline and Bauer at second, Cline, Stoik, Hesselman and Jaxon Vance at short with Rasmussen and Goetsch at third and all of them interchangeable at the positions.
Gabe O’Brien, who had a strong spring at North, will man down an outfield spot with Jonah Wiggins, Voller and Fentress among others who will see garden work.
While the pitching is deep, Faanes has some concern over the hitting.
“We lost a lot of firepower in the middle of our order and replacing that will be a challenge,” he said.
Kjellberg and Kapanke head the returnees. Kjellberg, the Elk Mound product, batted .420 with 11 extra base hits and 30 runs batted in while Kapanke had two homers among 12 extra base hits and drove in 27 runs with a .322 average. Zachow hit .333 in limited trips.
“Cline, O’Brien and Hesselman should add some punch,” Faanes said. “We’ll figure out the batting order as we go along.”
Faanes, known for changing lineups and getting everybody into play, said he had more than 40 players tryout and had to make some cuts although “all were worthy players.”
“The goal of the program is to develop players and give everyone a chance,” he said.
Major losses from last year’s team are Ryan Venne, Tanner Halvorson, Zac Stange. Jaelin Williams, Jack Brown and Jaxon Kostka.
Faanes is assisted by Doug Flater and Steve Kjellberg while John and Kyle Rauch and Nick Peterson return as coaches of the highly-successful 17-under team which reached the semifinals of the state tournament last year and is a past state champion.
(all home games at Carson Park)
June 10, at Hudson, 5 p.m.; 14-15-16, at Sheboygan tournament (Green Bay Southwest, Sheboygan, Watertown, Plover); 19, at Superior Reds; 21, at Holmen; 22-23-24, at La Crosse Boober Parizek Classic (Appleton, Stillwater, La Crosse, Rochester, Superior, Beloit, Hartford); 28-30, at DePere Tournament (Beloit, Hartford, Green Bay Jays, DePere).
July 1, Hudson, 7 p.m.; 2, La Crosse (2), 4 p.m.; 4, Chippewa Falls, 1:30 p.m.; 5-6-7, River City Classic at Carson Park (Altoona, Green Bay Shockers, Marshfield, Winona); 9, at Chippewa, 5 p.m.; 11-12-13-14, at Plover Central Wisconsin Classic (Manitowoc, Plover, Sheboygan, Madison Impact); 15, at River Falls, 7 p.m.; 19-22, Regional at Carson Park; 26-30, State tournament at Chippewa Falls.
August 7-11, Great Lakes Regional at Sioux Falls, S.D.
Mason Bauer, if/p; Marcus Cline, of/p; Jackson Falkner, p/if; Joe Feck, c; Jack Fentress, c/of/p; Austin Goetsch, p/3b; Carter Hesselman, p/ss; Cooper Kapanke, 1b/3b; Ethan Kjellberg, 1b/3b/p; Gabe O’Brien, of/p; Logan Rasmussen, 3b/p; Levi Schaller, p/u; Austin Selz, p/u; Connor Stoik, p/u; Jaxon Vance, if/p; Mitch Voller, p/of; Jonah Wiggins, of/c; Joel Zachow, if/c/p.
June 7-8-9, Rochester Invitational (Sioux Falls, Rochester, Minnetonka); 11, at Superior Blues (2), 5 p.m.; at Hudson, 5 p.m.; 14-15-16 at Burnsville Rattler (Eagan, Burnsville, Roseville, Stillwater); 18, at Chippewa Falls, 5 p.m.; 20, Osseo, 7.p.m., Carson Park; 22, Superior Blues (2), 12 noon, Fairfax; 24, Wausau (2), 5 p.m., Carson Park; 25, at Osseo, 6 p.m.; 28-29-30, Chippewa Wood Bat Challenge (Hudson, Superior, River Falls, Chippewa).
July 1, Hudson, 5 p.m., Carson Park; 4, Chippewa Falls, 11 a.m., Carson; 6-7-8, at Plover Central Wisconsin Classic (Green Bay Shockers, Plover, Sheboygan, Nekoosa); 8, River Falls, 6 p.m. at Fairfax; 12-16, Regional; 19-23, state at Marshfield.
Alex Schmidt, p/if/of; Anthony Pogodzinski, c/if/of; Ben Boda, p/if; Blyade Lecher, p/3b/of; Campbell Kapanke, if/of; Carson Windeshausen, 1b/of; Chase Bredl, p/of; Cody Clish, p/if; Cody Dayton, 3b/of; Connor Lysy, p/if/of; Dalton Steele, p/of; Elyjah Johnson, of; Isaiah Katz, p/ss; Jake Becker, of; Lucas Costley, of; Parker Lemanski, 2b/of; Will Bergman, p/of; Xavier Bembnister, p/Util.