GRAND CHUTE — After three years of falling just short, the Eau Claire North baseball team will finally make its return to the championship round of the state tournament.
And the breakthrough came just a couple of months after such an idea would have seemed like wishful thinking.
"Early in the season, a lot of people didn't think we would make it this far, even some people in the program," shortstop Carter Hesselman said. "It's really cool to see how this group has evolved as a team and as a family."
North defeated Fond du Lac 8-4 late on Tuesday night at Fox Cities Stadium to advance to the Division 1 state championship game. The Huskies will play Sun Prairie for the state title on Thursday at 6 p.m.
It's North's first state championship game appearance since 2011, when the Huskies won the title.
It has been quite the turnaround for a North team that was 3-3 through its first six games of the year.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," outfielder Gabe O'Brien said. "At the beginning of the year I don't know if anyone knew we'd be right where we are today. It's just progressed every single day. It's amazing."
North's mighty offense once again flexed its muscles early on Tuesday night. After plating six runs in the first inning of the quarterfinals against Sussex Hamilton earlier in the day, North scored twice against Fond du Lac to open the game. Sam Stange and Gabriel Richardson both knocked RBI singles to give North the early lead.
"It's a tough thing to get going in the first inning, especially after having to sit around for (a few) hours," Stange said. "It was really cool to see everyone's approach in the first inning, and to be able to play small ball too — moving runners over and getting timely hitting."
The Huskies stayed on the attack, adding five runs in the third inning to pull ahead 7-0. Joel Zachow and Joe Feck both had RBI singles, and O'Brien ripped a two-RBI double to the right-center gap.
But the Cardinals wouldn't go away easily. They got RBI singles of their own from Sam Hernandez and Justin Schnell in the bottom of the third to cut the lead to five, and chipped away with two more runs in the fifth with the help of some North errors.
Another RBI single from Stange in the top of the fifth completed North's scoring for the day.
The Huskies were able to navigate the day's two games without burning all of its pitching due to pitch count limitations. It wasn't easy after they surrendered 12 runs in their quarterfinal win. But Stange and Hesselman, who both pitched in the quarterfinals, returned to help finish off the semifinal win and preserve innings for other pitchers.
Austin Goetsch and Xavier Bembnister, their Nos. 3 and 4 arms, will both be available to pitch in the state title game. Bembnister went 2.1 innings in the semifinals, while Goetsch worked 2.2 innings over the course of the day. Goetsch started in the semifinals and threw two scoreless innings.
"The pitch count is really difficult to navigate," North coach Bob Johnson said. "It's really, really hard to pull a kid like Austin Goetsch today when he's cruising right along and things are looking good. But you have to plan for the week and you have to have the arms you want against a good Sun Prairie team."
Sun Prairie advanced to the championship game by virtue of wins over Oak Creek and Burlington on Tuesday.
North 8, Fond du Lac 4
North 205 010 0 - 8 12 3
Fond du Lac 002 020 0 - 4 6 0
WP: Carter Hesselman (2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K). LP: Caden Krug (2.2 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 2 K).
Leading hitters - North: Gabe O'Brien 3-5 (2 RBI), Sam Stange 2-5 (2 RBI).
Records: North 24-4, Fond du Lac 14-13.