Baseball Cards are headed to state

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MTT News's picture
Rob Reischel
Middleton's baseball team defeated Verona, 3-1, in a sectional final Tuesday and earned its first trip to state since 2016./Times-Tribune photo by Rob Reischel

LACROSSE — Of all the terrific Middleton baseball teams in recent years — and there have been plenty — this wasn’t the one expected to break the drought.

There was just one starter back from the 2022 team that reached the sectional semifinals. There were no proven commodities on the mound. And as skipper Brent Jorgensen examined his roster back in March, he was left with a bevy of questions and very few answers.

Yet there were the 2023 Cardinals dancing, laughing, smiling and embracing one another at beautiful Copeland Park on Tuesday evening. This team that few thought would excel three short months ago continued a season that’s been surprising, rewarding and exhilarating.

Middleton toppled Verona, 3-1, in a WIAA Division 1 sectional final and earned the school’s first trip to the state tournament since 2016. The Cardinals, who were seeded fourth in their sectional, improved to 22-8 and continued their stunning postseason run.

Verona, which was seeded third, finished the year 19-11.

“At the beginning of the season, something like this kind of felt like a little bit of a stretch,” said winning pitcher Noah Schmitt. “But as the season got going, we kind of figured out who we were. And by the end of the season, we expected to win these kind of games.”

Jorgensen, in his fifth season as Middleton’s manager, admits he wasn’t sure what to expect when the year began. The Cardinals had eight starters and two all-league pitchers to replace, and Jorgensen knew making the pieces to this puzzle fit would be a challenge.

“We had a really good, senior-led team last year and almost all these kids didn’t play,” Jorgensen said. “But they stayed with it and they knew that their chance would come. They knew that they’d have a chance to take advantage of their opportunities this year.

“We’re not flashy, but we play good baseball. We’re a tough, gritty team.”

That grit was on display from start to finish against a Verona team the Cardinals split with dur-ing the regular season.

The game was tied, 1-1, in the top of the fifth when Middleton scored a pair of runs that proved to be the difference.

Freshman second baseman Jackson Guerrero worked a seven-pitch walk, then stole second. With one out, center fielder Jackson Rademacher turned on a slider and doubled to left scoring Guerrero and giving Middleton a 2-1 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

“I was just thinking get a bat on the ball, at least get (Guerrero) over,” Rademacher said. “Help the team out however I can.”

Rademacher moved to third when catcher Wyatt Baird singled to left, then he scored when reliever Braden Rozga uncorked a wild pitch to make it 3-1.

“That’s just a read play,” Jorgensen said. “We spend a lot of time on stuff like that and it’s really cool to see some of that stuff come through.”

Rademacher — and all the Cardinals — are taught to head for home the split second a ball gets past the catcher. In this case, though, Verona catcher Nate Novinska got a terrific bounce off the backstop and Rademacher narrowly beat the flip to Rozga.

“I saw the ball kick and I thought, ‘Oh this is going to be a tight play,’ ” Rademacher said. “I’m just happy I got in there.”

Schmitt, who allowed just one earned run and four hits in six innings, rolled through the fifth. The Wildcats then put two on with two out in the sixth, but Schmitt got first baseman Owen Davis to fly out to Rademacher in center.

“I really just tried to hit my spots and execute all my pitches,” said Schmitt, who threw strikes on 57 of 92 pitches (62.0%). “I know if a guy hits one hard, I have great defense behind me and I trust those guys 100%.”

Middleton also has great trust in senior Hayden Hellenbrand. The Cardinals’ shortstop picked up the win in the sectional semifinals, then was summoned to pitch the seventh and try notching a save.

“(Pitching) coach (Tyler) Payne asked me if I wanted the ball for the last inning and I was like, ‘Yeah I want the ball,’ ” Hellenbrand said. “Noah pitched a great game and I was like I have to pick him up and finish it out.”

Hellenbrand did just that.

Hellenbrand retired the first two batters — including a strikeout of No. 9 hitter Garrison Codde. He then threw two quick strikes to leadoff hitter Atticus Marse, and after missing on two straight pitches, Hellenbrand struck out Marse looking.

Just like that, the little engine that could was on its way to state.

“We’ve been to sectionals plenty these last seven years,” said Hellenbrand, who will play collegiately at Edgewood beginning this fall. “But to get over the hump like this is insane. It hasn’t quite hit me yet, but it’s just a great feeling. I’ve been playing with these guys my whole life, and to end my senior year going to state with these guys, it’s awesome.”

Middleton had a handful of critical plays to ensure it got the ending it hoped for.

Verona rallied twice in the first three innings, but came away empty each time.

In the first, a pair of Middleton errors helped the Wildcats put runners on first and second with just one out. But Schmitt caught Verona’s Jack DeTienne napping at second, spun and fired to second where Hellenbrand tagged him out.

“If we see a guy who’s antsy out there, which I did, Hayden (Hellenbrand) gave the call and we got ‘em,” Schmitt said.

Hellenbrand then made a diving stop on a Mason Armstrong smash up the middle and threw out Verona’s left fielder to escape the jam.

Verona threatened again in the third, putting runners on first and second with just one out. Armstrong then rocketed a blast that seemed certain to wind up in the left field corner.

But third baseman Dylan Klock used every inch of his vertical, skied into the air and snagged Armstrong’s hot shot. Klock then fired to second base and doubled up Verona center fielder Gar-rison Codde.

“He’s a really good athlete,” Jorgensen said of Klock. “He has a nice vertical, but he definitely outjumped his vertical there and we totally needed him to.”

Schmitt agreed.

“I knew he smoked it,” Schmitt said of Armstrong. “And as soon as I looked over, Dylan’s five feet in the air jumping, catching that ball. He quick turns around, throws to second. It was the most heads up play we’ve probably seen this entire year.”

Middleton scored its first run in the second when first baseman Alden Cleary led off with an infield single. Left fielder Jason Morgan laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt, then designated hitter Jacob Guerrero lined a single to right-center that plated Cleary and gave the Cardinals a 1-0 lead.

Verona evened things up in the bottom of the fourth when Tre Grignon’s RBI single scored Armstrong.

And that set the stage for Middleton’s big, two-run fifth — and eventual sectional title.

“It’s unreal knowing how far we’ve come to get to this moment,” Rademacher said. “It’s everything you’ve ever dreamed of. There’s nothing like it.”

Jorgensen agreed.

“We just do it our way. It’s a program thing,” he said. “We’ve been to sectionals three years in a row. We’ve been knocking on this door with some really great teams over the last few years and it’s really good we’ve finally been able to walk through it.”


June 6

WIAA Division 1 Sectional final

Middleton 3, Verona 1

Middleton … 010 020 0 — 3 7 3

Verona ...... 000 100 0 — 1 4 2

Pitchers (ip-h-r-er-so-bb) —M: Noah Schmitt (W: 6-4-1-1-4-1), Hayden Hellenbrand (S: 1-0-0-0-2-0); V: Witkowski (L: 4.1-4-3-2-5-2), Braden Rozga (0.1-1-0-0-0-0), Riley Peterson (2.1-2-0-0-6-1) .

Leading hitters —  M - Jackson Radamacher 2x4 (2B), Jacob Guerrero 2x3. V — Atticus Marse 2x4.


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