GRAND CHUTE — With his team trailing following a blown 6-0 lead, Eau Claire North baseball coach Bob Johnson decided it was time for some tough love.
"We got around that fourth, fifth inning and I kind of noticed the guys maybe start to feel a little bit down. That's not something I've seen before. I got after them a little bit, which I don't do very often," Johnson said. "I used the word grit. 'We need toughness right now, we've scored runs numerous times.'"
The message did its job. North overturned a five-run deficit, taking the lead with a seven-run sixth inning to defeat Sussex Hamilton 15-12 in the Division 1 state quarterfinals at Fox Cities Stadium.
"There was about a 20-minute span in that game where I felt like we were down, and Coach said he felt like we were down too," said Carter Hesselman, who earned the win with an outstanding relief outing. "Once we started picking each other up after bad at-bats or when someone got out, that's when we started piling on runs."
North will face the winner of the quarterfinal between Fond du Lac and Brookfield East in the semifinals around 8:30 p.m. tonight.
The Huskies started the game about as well as they could have hoped for, bashing five hits in the first inning to bat around the order and plate six runs out of the gates.
But the 6-0 advantage wouldn't last long. Hamilton scored 11 unanswered runs across the second and third innings to take a five-run lead with the help of seven walks in the frames. North starting pitcher Sam Stange was chased from the mound after 1.2 innings of work.
"Obviously pretty disappointed at that point to give up the lead like that," Stange said. "But I'm just glad we were able to come back. I had all the confidence in the world in Carter."
Hesselman turned in a much-needed lengthy relief appearance. After Stange and Austin Goetsch had allowed 10 runs in the first 2.1 innings of the game, Hesselman went the rest of the way and only surrendered two runs.
"At that point when we were having a hard time throwing strikes, I just said we've got to go to Carter right now. See if we can settle things down and chip away," Johnson said.
It was exactly what the doctor prescribed. With Hesselman holding things down on the mound, North scored twice in the fourth on a Chargers error and an RBI triple by Stange.
After a 1-2-3 fifth inning, the Huskies completed the unlikely comeback with seven runs in the sixth. Gabe O'Brien ripped an RBI double to start the scoring, and Stange drove in two more with another RBI triple. Anthony Pogodzinski and Gabriel Richardson followed with back-to-back RBI hits. Richardson's run-scoring double broke a 12-12 tie and gave North the lead for good.
The Huskies chased a future NCAA Division I pitcher from the mound and tagged him with the loss. They scored eight runs on Northern Illinois commit Eric Erato, who came on in relief early in the game.
North tallied 15 hits in the win. Stange went 3 for 4 with four RBIs, while Richardson added two hits. Eight of the team's starters recorded at least one hit.
"You look for fastballs early in the count, and if you get two strikes you just adjust," O'Brien said of the team's approach at the plate. He finished 4 for 5 for the Huskies.
And with Hesselman putting in a workmanlike performance on the mound, 15 runs was enough to pull North into the semifinals.
"I was basically mixing my pitches. I would change up my first pitch every single batter," Hesselman said. "I wouldn't throw the same thing to the batter the next time I saw him through the lineup. Just mixing pitches and mixing speeds was effective today."
North 15, Hamilton 12
Hamilton 065 010 0 - 12 8 2
North 600 207 X - 15 15 2
WP: Carter Hesselman (4.2 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K). LP: Eric Erato (4 IP, 8 H, 8 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 5 K).
Leading hitters - North: Gabe O'Brien 4-5 (2 2B, RBI), Sam Stange 3-4 (2 3B, 4 RBI), Gabriel Richardson 2-4 (2B, 2 RBI).
Records: North 23-4, Hamilton 19-9.