North High Baseball Caps Fourth Straight State Tourney Trip With Title
Bottom of the sixth, two on, two out, down by two. In 20 minutes of real time, a season’s worth of effort could result in something less than a championship.
Then Sam Stange hit a home run. Of course he did.
The Eau Claire North Huskies did win the 2019 Division 1 state baseball title, their second in school history. Even though they had a player with the talent of Stange, all the players combined to push the team to the top, as is the story with every campaign of excellence.
The story of North’s rise back to the pinnacle of state baseball begins with the climate of the sport among Eau Claire youth. Assistant coach Mike Peplinski cited local history, programs, and mentors, as well as the high quality of the city’s Babe Ruth teams for teenagers. Additionally, he said, “Success leads to more success. With many trips to the state tournament in Appleton, these young players have role models to look up to, and work hard to follow in their footsteps.”
“Whether it was early losses, late-inning deficits or individual struggles, the team never gave in or wavered.” –Teddy Joas, assistant coach
For North in particular, this marked the fourth straight year at state, but in his start-of-the-season address to the team, Coach Robert Johnson left out title talk, instead focusing on the Huskies’ Mission Statement and Team Baseball Goal. “Each day we focus on mini-goals,” he said. “It could be as simple as playing catch without a missed ball, getting four out of the five bunt attempts down during a drill, or simply having a clean round of infield and outfield.”
The Big Rivers Conference seemed daunting, with Chi-Hi and River Falls starting the season undefeated and North getting swept in an early doubleheader. Shortstop Carter Hesselman talked about Coach Johnson’s reaction: “(He) told us that this season was up to us and we could control the outcome of every single game if we played like we could.” Says Johnson: “It was at this next practice we had a good talk about this being our team, not a team from the past and that nobody owed us anything; it was up to us to improve and form our own identity as a team!” North won all but one remaining game.
Johnson highlights an enlightening 10-game stretch in May; part of that was a 16-inning game, split between April 23 to May 6. That game and their extra-inning walk-off win in the Sectional Semifinal against Marshfield stood out to outfielder Keegan Dehnke. By June, the Huskies were heading back to the Fox Valley and the state tournament.
Three rounds stood between North and a championship. Their outlook? Says second baseman Joel Zachow: “I think that approach of one play, one inning, one game at a time helped us stay sharp and ready for all three games.” Wild lead swings marked their quarterfinal win; the semifinal was comparatively steady for the Huskies. This brought June 13’s title game against state powerhouse Sun Prairie.
A 2-1 lead held until the top of the sixth inning; now trailing 4-2 in the bottom half, Johnson knew getting Stange to the plate was critical. “Before I left to coach third base I told them, ‘This is not how we wanted the sixth to go, but now we move forward, this is what we’ve done all year, so why the hell not in the state title game; your job is to battle your ass off and get the next guy to the plate!’”
Hesselman and Gabe O’Brien did their job, and Stange came to the plate. Catcher Joe Feck recognized Stange’s zero-for-two performance thus far and “knew there was no way a kid like Sam goes 0-3 in the state championship, so I was ready for something special.” The special home run flew out to right. The team was delirious. For Johnson? “I knew we had three incredibly hard outs to get to win a state championship.”
Once those were delivered in the top of the seventh, the title was won. Johnson’s first thought? “Relief! Then a great sense of pride and overwhelming happiness for the players and my assistant coaches!”
Toughness is what characterizes the 2019 Huskies. Says assistant coach Teddy Joas: “Whether it was early losses, late-inning deficits or individual struggles, the team never gave in or wavered.” It was a trait exhibited when most needed. When the going got tough, the tough ALL got going.