Cardinals climb another mountain to win regionals, next up is sectionals

Prep baseball preview and review

STRUM - Eleva-Strum High School Baseball Team head coach C.J. Christianson has talked about his climbing a series of mountains throughout the 2023 season.

One of those was winning the Dairyland Conference title, which they have done. The next one was winning the regional tournament.

And the Cardinals planted their flag on that summit last week, winning both tournament games at home at Spanberg Park as the No. 1 seed to win the school's first such title since the 1990s.

But it wasn't easy. E-S dispatched No. 8 seed Wisconsin Rapids Assumption (7-12 overall) only by 9-6 score on Tuesday, May 30 and against DC rival Blair-Taylor the very next day it was even closer. The Cards needed some timely insurance runs in the sixth to win 5-3 despite sweeping the season series against the Wildcats (13-11) who were seeded fifth.

"We knew it wasn't going to be easy," Christianson said. "It's the playoffs. It's a new season and everyone is 0-0. We can't let our record make us complacent about the challenges ahead if we want to keep going."

The championship game started well for the Cards as senior George Munson ripped an RBI-triple with two out which scored juniors Justin Becker and Jason Bjerke and put the home team in front 2-0 in their first at bats. After B-T scored their first run in the the third, E-S responded with an RBI-double from junior Ty Webb which scored Becker again for a 3-1 advantage.

That was the score until the sixth when the 'Cats plated a run off Ryan Flynn's RBI-single. Junior Carter Gunderson came to the pitcher's mound in relief of starter Webb and notched two key strikeouts to end the Wildcats threat. And, not complacent just to hold the line, the Redbirds picked up some needed insurance runs in the same inning when Webb executed perfect suicide -squeeze bunt with the bases loaded and one out which scored a fired-up Bjerke and freshman Alex Anderson hit a RBI-sacrifice that scored senior DH Marcus Steffenson.

"Ty did the same thing against Mondovi," Christianson said. "Obviously the stakes were a lot higher but we gave him a lot of encouragement he could do it again and when it got to first base he just smiled. It just showed that the moment was too big for him or for any of our players today. Jason (Bjerke) made some big plays and stepped up to fill-in catcher due to an injury (to starter Hank Munson), Justin (Becker) had a great game with a couple of hits, runs and diving catches at second. Alex (Anderson) had a big hit and Carter (Gunderson) did a great job coming into pitch in the sixth. We used a lot of arms against Assumption just 24 hours before so our pitching depth has been very important to us this season."

And it will be needed again in the two-game, one-day scenario that is WIAA baseball sectionals. E-S plays Tuesday, June 6 at Blair-Taylor in a Division 4 match-up against Pittsville (23-5). The Panthers have been unranked all season compared to the No. 1 ranked Cardinals (23-1) but their reputation is a solid one as they won their league with a perfect record and have beaten several teams of note from bigger schools like Black River Falls/Fall Creek, Osseo-Fairchild. They downed Independence/Gilmanton 8-5 to win their regional. Four of their players made first team All-CWC South in senior centerfielder Dylan Luther, senior pitcher Evan Haley, sophomore shortstop Logan Zickert and freshman second baseman Dawson Luther. The semifinal game is at 10 a.m.

"It's an honor to be highly thought of to be ranked No. 1 in the state," Christianson said. "But it doesn't mean anything in the playoffs because upsets happen and sometimes its the teams that are overlooked that do the damage. We know Pittsville has a very good team and we'll have a very competitive game with them."

Indeed, being in the top 10 in Division 4 didn't save teams such as Seneca and Wauzeka-Steuben from being upset in the playoffs. The teams that beat them. No. 11 Weston (8-12) and No. 5 seed Ithaca (17-7) make up the other half of the sectional bracket for a noon start time at B-T. The championship game is at 4 p.m.


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