Cardinals battle to strike out cancer

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MTT News's picture
Dennis Semrau/Special to the Times-Tribune
University of Wisconsin basketball players Tyler Wahl (left) and Max Klesmit were honorary coaches during the 'Cardinals Strike Out Cancer’ game Monday./Photo submitted

It was a beautiful day for a baseball game on Monday afternoon at Middleton High School, a sun-splashed kind of day that the late great Hall of Famer Ernie Banks would have exclaimed ‘Let’s play two’.

And while the Ninth Annual ‘Cardinals Strike Out Cancer’ game between host Middleton and visiting Sun Prairie East was only a seven-inning matchup featuring two of the elite programs in the Big Eight Conference, the event accomplished its primary goal.

That was to raise funds to support American Family Children’s Hospital pediatric cancer research.

“I think it helps our players to realize they are pretty blessed to have their health,” said Lori Hellenbrand, chairperson of the event. “A lot of us have been affected by cancer in one way or another. So watching family members go through that, this has a special place in our hearts to raise funds to hopefully find some cures so families don’t have to continue to go through that.”

The event was originally scheduled for May 1, but was postponed for two weeks due to inclement weather.

It was well worth the wait.

While the host Cardinals fell to Sun Prairie East, 6-0, behind a two-hit pitching gem tossed by senior left-hander Zach Brzezinski, the event touched all the bases.

Over the past eight years, the programs have collaboratively raised more than $152,000 to win the most important battle — the one faced against cancer.

“Last year we raised a little over $30,000 and we’re going to aim for that this year,” Hellenbrand said. “But we were going to give us some grace with the split of Sun Prairie into two schools because we weren’t sure how that was going to affect our fund-raising.

“Before today started, we were at about $16,000. Hopefully with the raffle, donations, and concession stands we’re able to bring in a lot more.”

Wisconsin men’s basketball players Tyler Wahl and Max Klesmit made an appearance and served as honorary coaches for the game.

“I thought being the hometown kid, being from Wisconsin, I’d let (Max) be the home team and be Middleton today,” Wahl said. “One of my good buddies from back home, his brother died a couple of years ago when I was in eighth grade. I know how much this means to the families who have suffered from cancer. Helping out is a big deal.”

The 2023 honorees Ella Wayland of Middleton and the family of Jon Schmidt of Sun Prairie were recognized in pregame ceremonies.

Wayland, who is in kindergarten at Northside Elementary in Middleton, was diagnosed with a cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue tumor when she was three years old. She completed 76 weeks of intense chemotherapy and radiation. She is now six years old and just had clean scans in the early part of March 2023.

Schmidt was the announcer for the Sun Prairie varsity baseball team for more than a decade and lost his battle with cancer in Sept., 2022 after an eight-year battle with mantle cell lymphoma. A proud supporter of Sun Prairie athletics, he produced game day programs, managed the Sun Prairie baseball website, and ran the Game Changer program to help fans follow his beloved Cardinals. He was represented by his wife, Angie, and son Aaron.

Tim Cleary, Chair of the Carbone Cancer Advisory Board and father of Middleton starting first baseman Alden Cleary put the day in perspective, win or lose.

“My niece, Riley, was on that soil five years ago and that was one of her last public appearances before she passed away as the honoree,” Cleary said.  “So to have a family member like that and to have a lot of additional family members that have been affected by cancer it’s one of the primary reasons why I joined the Carbone Board years ago to try to make a difference because cancer has been so prevalent in our lives.

“But to be a Middleton baseball alum and be a Middleton baseball coach in the youth levels and then to have my own son participate on the team and have my brother-in-law be a coach and have one of my lifetime buds Jaime Guerrero coach, there are so many connections today.”

Brzezinski tossed 5 2/3 innings of no-hit ball until Wyatt Baird ripped a double to the right field gap in the bottom of the sixth inning for Middleton (13-5, 10-4).

Jason Morgan led off the seventh inning with a single to left field, but Brzezinski retired the final three batters to complete the two-hit shutout for Sun Prairie East (17-2, 12-2).

“We couldn’t figure him out,” Middleton manager Brent Jorgensen said. “We were off-balance all game long. We didn’t have too many hard-hit balls. We had a couple, but definitely not as many as we would have liked.”

Brzezinski, who tamed the Middleton offense with a mixture of off-speed pitches, said he was honored to take the mound on such an important day.

“This is always one of the biggest games of the year, the biggest attendance. It’s a special event,” he said of the Cardinals Strike Out Cancer matchup. “And these guys are always good competition. To come out here and have a good day is always a great feeling.”

Middleton senior shortstop Hayden Hellenbrand said it was important for him and his teammates to look at the big picture.

“At the end of the day it was about more than baseball,” said Hellenbrand, whose parents Lori and Troy Hellenbrand were members of the event’s organizing committee. “It was about ‘Strike out Cancer’, raising money for people who have cancer and are going through battles right now. It was tough because we were playing for coach (Tyler) Payne, who lost his daughter a couple of years ago to cancer.

“But at the end of the day, you get to think about the big picture and raising money to fight cancer. It was great to see a big crowd out here, but it still stings.”

Sun Prairie East produced all the offense it would need in a perfectly executed second inning, when the Cardinals used some small-ball to score four runs.

Drew Kavanaugh and Isaac Wendler opened the inning with back-to-back singles and Jack Watkins followed with a sacrifice attempt and reached base on an error to load the bases.

Tyler Rauls followed with a suicide squeeze, which he beat out for a base hit and scored Kavanaugh for the only run Sun Prairie East would need.

“They put on a clinic of execution, and we did not at all,” Jorgensen said of Sun Prairie East. “We had a little pressure applied to us, and we cracked. They just continued to put it on.”

While he was disappointed in the final score, Jorgensen was proud to be part of such a positive event.

“We had a pretty good turnout. That was number one,” Jorgensen said. “Sometimes after a loss, you have to remind yourself of that. We were able to keep the tradition going of raising money for the American Family Children’s Hospital. I’m pretty proud that we were able to keep that going and do that.”

Sun Prairie East manager Jack Marchese, a long-time assistant coach who succeeded retired Hall of Fame coach Rob Hamilton this season — one of the event’s original organizers — agreed.

“Coming into this game, we wanted to honor this day by playing really good baseball,” Marchese said. “Win or lose, we wanted to play well, and I thought we did that. In the process, we beat a pretty gosh darn good team that was on a roll.”


May 15

Sun Prairie East 6, Middleton 0

Sun Prairie East .... 040 001 1 — 6 8 0

Middleton …….…. 000 000 0 — 0 2 3

Pitchers (ip-h-r-er-so-bb) — SPE: Zach Brzezinski (W: 7-2-0-0-4-1); Mid: Jacob Guerrero (L: 5.1-7-5-2-1-1), Hayden Hellenbrand (1.2-1-1-1-0-0).

Leading hitters — SPE: Drew Kavanaugh 2x3, Max Glusick 2x4 (3B). Mid: Wyatt |Baird (2B).


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