Eau Claire North baseball and head coach Bob Johnson have put together a dynasty worth envying.
With its sectional victory on Wednesday, the program punched its fourth straight trip to the state tournament. No North team had made it more than twice in a row prior to this run.
But despite the success of the program in getting to Grand Chute, the team is still looking to take the next step: a trip in the state final. The closest the Huskies have gotten in this recent run was two years ago, when North beat Green Bay Preble in the quarterfinals but lost to Kimberly in the semis.
The journey to get over that hump begins today at 1 p.m. when North squares off with Hamilton in the quarterfinals at 1 p.m.
“I think it’s a little bit different this time,” three-year varsity player Sam Stange said of his final shot at a title.
That doesn’t mean the Huskies are changing their approach, though.
“I think it’s the same mentality we’ve had the last few years,” Stange said. “We’re not done yet. ... I think every year we’ve been down there we’ve learned a little bit. Hopefully we put that to use.”
That was the message Johnson was trying to get across to his team in North’s final practice in Eau Claire Monday afternoon, a tuneup that concluded an hour before the team was set to take off on its cross-state journey. After winning 19 of their last 20 games, there’s no need to make radical adjustments from either a mental or physical perspective.
“Before we took BP today I had them tell me why we’ve been successful this year,” Johnson said. “Things like we battled with two strikes, we fouled off a lot of pitches. We run pitch counts high. Another player brought up (that) we love to hit in the green early in counts. ... We’ve got to just stick to the plan.”
North is coming off a sectional title which saw the team best Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids, with the ladder coming off an impressive upset of Stevens Point in its semifinal. The Huskies are 22-4, their only losses coming against Holmen, Eau Claire Memorial and River Falls twice.
Hamilton, the No. 3 seed in its sectional, is making its first appearance in the spring state tournament after moving from summer ball. The Chargers are 19-8 after beating Milton, 6-3, in the Oconomowoc sectional final. During the regular season, they tied with Menomonee Falls for the Greater Metro Conference title.
The Chargers have a pair of strong pitchers in Eric Erato (5-1, 1.53 ERA) and Christopher Barnes (9-1, 1.33), while Hunter Slaats is hitting .466 with 18 RBIs.
“I know they have two arms that have logged most of their innings this year,” Johnson said. “I think, like most high school teams, their top four are pretty dangerous. They like to hit fastballs early in the count.”
Stange, the Big Rivers player of the year, is expected to start on the mound for North. He boasts a 2.03 ERA and is just as dangerous at the plate, hitting at a .522 average with 30 RBIs this season.
Both schools have a state title under their belt: North in the spring of 2011 and Hamilton in the summer of 1981. They both are also honorable mentions in the latest state coaches’ poll.
If North wins, the Huskies will play the winner of Fond du Lac and Brookfield East in the semifinals at 6 p.m. The Division 1 title game is Thursday at 6 p.m.
While North as a program has gotten used to trips to Grand Chute, the drive across the state has been a long time coming for Boyceville. The Bulldogs kick off their first state tournament action since 2000 when they play Stratford in the Division 3 semifinals Wednesday at 1 p.m.
This is a completely new experience for his team, but Boyceville coach Michael Roemhild said he hasn’t had to refocus his players much.
“It was enjoying the moment of winning sectionals and realizing what we’d done for a couple of days,” he said. “Now you can tell the guys are really dialing in and more than anything they just want to play the game.”
Boyceville punched its ticket with a 13-2 victory against Cumberland, the team’s ninth straight win, in the Chippewa Falls sectional. The Bulldogs are 19-3 overall.
“We’ve put all kinds of hard work, all kinds of dedication into the season,” Bulldogs first baseman Trevor Hollister said following the sectional final. “Our pitching is what keeps us in these games, and then our defense just has to back it up behind them. We’ve done that all year. We deserve to be here.”
Hollister leads the team’s offense, batting .394 this year with 26 RBIs. Connor Sempf stars on the mound with a 0.98 ERA while averaging more than one strikeout per inning.
The Bulldogs meet a Stratford team that is ending an even longer state drought, having last appeared in 1989. The Tigers have won 13 straight and provide a daunting obstacle in pitcher Lance Heidmann (6-1, 0.46 ERA).
“Stratford is very deserving of being at state,” Roemhild said. “From what I’ve seen and heard and the little bit of information that I’ve been able to get they sound pretty comparable to us. They play very well defensively. They like to run the bases. It’s going to be a tough game.”
If Boyceville wins, it will meet the winner of the Markesan/Ozaukee matchup in the final on Thursday at noon.
“It’s a huge accomplishment for our baseball team, but it’s also a huge accomplishment for our school and community,” Roemhild said of making it this far. “Being from a small community and teaching in Boyceville, you can see what success does and the buzz that it brings to the community. This is great for everybody, not just the baseball team. It’s great to get Boyceville’s name out there.”