Middleton's dream season dies

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MTT News's picture
Rob Reischel
Middleton's baseball team reacts after falling in the WIAA Division 1 state quarterfinals to Hortonville Monday./Photo courtesy of Brian Roebke

GRAND CHUTE — Brent Jorgensen pulled out all the stops.

Jorgensen, Middleton’s fifth-year manager, knew his Cardinals were facing arguably the state’s top pitcher in Hortonville’s Thomas Burns during Monday’s WIAA Division 1 state quarterfinal.

So to ready his team, Jorgensen cranked the pitching machine to 95 miles per hour. He had a handful of alums return to MHS and pitch to the Cardinals from 50-feet away — roughly 10 feet closer than the pitching mound sits.

While the strategy and preparation was sound, it wasn’t quite enough.

Burns, an Arizona State recruit, showed why he could have a lengthy career in this sport. Burns allowed just three hits, struck out eight and threw a complete game shutout to power the Polar Bears to a 3-0 win over Middleton at Fox Cities Stadium.

The Cardinals, making their first trip to state since 2016, ended the year 22-9. Hortonville, making its first state appearance since 1998, improved to 25-4 and advanced to a state semifinal game against Franklin on Wednesday.

“Hands down that’s the best guy we’ve seen all year,” said Jorgensen, who was a standout at nearby DePere High School. “He’s throwing low 90s. He’s throwing curveballs, sliders and change-ups. He’s locating in and out. He’s up, down.

“He was dialed in and that’s what you expect when you get to state. Selfishly, I would prefer not to see the best pitcher in the state, but that’s what happens. Those teams earn their way to state just like we do. You’ve got to beat them to be successful.”

Burns, who throws in the low-90s, outdueled Middleton senior Noah Schmitt — whose fastball tops out at about 80. But Schmitt’s off-speed pitches are terrific, he locates extremely well and he’s the ultimate thinking-man’s pitcher.

Schmitt allowed two runs in five innings, struck out four, walked two and allowed four hits. He also threw strikes on 60 of 89 pitches (67.4%).

“I thought I threw pretty good,” Schmitt said. “Obviously, there’s a few pitches I want back, but you can't hang your head on a few pitches when you threw a pretty good game. It was a great season overall.”

Middleton catcher Wyatt Baird, who said he’s caught Schmitt “too many times to count,” was incredibly impressed how his teammate threw against a Hortonville team that entered the game with a .303 batting average for the season.

“I’m really proud of him,” Baird said of Schmitt. “Last year he really didn’t play a lot of varsity. A lot of these guys didn't play a lot of varsity. To be able to come in and do what he’s been doing, and what most of these guys were able to do, is truly something to look up to. I’m really proud of my guys.”

With good reason.

Despite struggling against Burns, the game was scoreless heading to the fifth inning thanks in large part to Schmitt’s savviness.

Schmitt was brilliant through four innings, allowing just one hit and no runs. But the Polar Bears finally broke through against Schmitt in the fifth.

Left fielder Ethan Peters had a one-out single, then center fielder Evan Mahan reached on a fielder’s choice. Mahan stole second as Schmitt and leadoff hitter Brett Sommer engaged in an enormous battle.

With the count 2-2, Schmitt — and Middleton’s enthusiastic bench — thought he hit the outside corner for a called strike and the third out. But home plate umpire Don Bates said Schmitt missed outside.

“I thought it was there,” said Schmitt, a first-team all-Big Eight Conference selection. “But you’re not going to get every call and that’s kind of the beauty of baseball. If you got every call, it wouldn’t be as fun.”

On the next pitch, Sommer turned on an off speed and hit a towering drive off the left field wall for a triple. Sommer’s blast scored Mahan and gave Hortonville a 1-0 lead.

“It was a curveball inside and he just turned on it,” Schmitt said. “It was a good hit.”

Hortonville’s Camden Kuhnke followed with an infield single that gave the Polar Bears a 2-0 lead. And Hortonville added a run in the sixth on a sacrifice fly by Nate Vela that scored shortstop Camden Kuhnke.

“It didn’t look flashy, especially compared to the other guy,” Jorgensen said of Schmitt. “But he gets outs and competes and works his tail off. And he did a great job pitching for us and competing. That’s a tough lineup and he attacked them from start to finish.”

The Cardinals didn't have many chances against Burns. But when they did, they couldn’t get the key hit.

Burns retired the first 10 Middleton batters he faced and struck out six of them. But Baird gave the Cardinals some life in the fourth, when he blasted a one-out double off the wall in left.

“I’ll be talking that up forever,” Baird said. “That feels really good. It was a better outcome than I thought. Coming in, everybody was hyping (Burns) up and I feel like our team was better than anyone thought.”

With two outs, Alden Cleary drew a walk to put runners on second and first. But designated hitter Jacob Guerrero grounded back to the mound for the third out and the game remained scoreless.

In the sixth with Middleton in a 2-0 hole, leadoff batter Jackson Rademacher drew a one-out walk, and shortstop Hayden Hellenbrand had a two-out single up the middle. However, Cleary grounded back to the mound and Hortonville’s lead remained intact.

“We had our opportunities,” Jorgensen said. “I think we had two, possibly three innings with guys in scoring position. I know we had some decent swings. The timing is just different when you’re not used to seeing 90 miles per hour.

“We had three or four days to prepare, but seeing 90 miles per hour is still a significant jump at the high school level. Our timing was just a little bit off. Our swings were right there, they were competitive. We were right there, we were just a fraction of a second off.”

Middleton still had a sliver of hope when designated hitter Jacob Guerrero drew a leadoff walk in the seventh. But Burns retired the next three batters he faced and Hortonville had its first win at the state tournament since 1998.

Despite the loss, Middleton headed home beaming with pride.

Expectations weren’t high for this group back in March. Instead, these Cardinals became Jorgensen’s first to reach the state tournament. They were the only Big Eight Conference team at state. And they gave Burns — and a terrific Hortonville team — all it could handle.

“I’m super proud of this team,” Schmitt said. “We showed resilience every day and it never feels like we’re out of it with this team. We don’t flinch. We battled right to the end. A few things just didn’t go our way.”

Baird agreed.

“I’m very satisfied and very happy to know I have Middleton on my chest,” he said. “It will always be that way.”

Afterwards, Jorgensen talked about Middleton’s 14 seniors, and the entire 2023 team, like they were his own children.

“We were so close for the last few years, and we had teams that absolutely had the talent to be here,” Jorgensen said. “Our teams the last few years were just as good as everybody else that was here, and we just weren’t able to break through that door. And with this team this year we did. And today was fun. It was a great experience. They played hard. I’m proud of them.

“I’ll remember this team for a long time and I’ll remember them for a lot of reasons. Getting to state for the first time as the head coach. Selfish reasons there. But also … they’ve lost a year with Covid, they’ve lost classmates last year and this year. They’ve had an abundance of things that could have gone against them, but they stayed with it. Very thankful for them. I’m proud of them and they’re just a lot of fun to be around.”

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