BURLINGTON – If you stick around the baseball diamond long enough, you will see just about everything that can happen.
But, never in his imagination– nor at any time in his 20-plus years of coaching– did Shullsburg/Benton head coach Tim Strang think he’d see what happened to his team in their sectional final game against Johnson Creek.
The hard-hitting Bluejays sent 26 players to the plate in their turn at-bat in the third inning and scored a jaw-dropping 22 runs to erase Shullsburg/Benton’s 3-0 lead and spoil the Miner-Zephyrs’ dreams of a trip to the state tournament.
Johnson Creek (18-6 overall) rolled on from there, posting a 24-4 victory in five innings over Shullsburg/Benton (23-6) to capture the championship title and the program’s first state berth since 2007 at the WIAA Division 4 Sectional hosted by Catholic Central at Beaumont Field on Tuesday, June 5.
“I’ve seen some big innings before and have been on both sides of something like that, but not to that extent. An inning like that doesn’t come around too often,” said Strang about the Bluejays’ rally.
The Bluejays’ huge inning began with an error, but that base runner was promptly retired on a cleverly run pick-off play where pitcher Matt Cook faked a throw to first baseman Connor Crotty, who went to the ground like he was going after an errant throw. The ploy drew senior Ruger Roehl off the base and Cook ran him down for the first out.
That play lit a fire under the Johnson Creek offense as they strung together three base hits, a walk, a hit batter and a sacrifice fly to tie the score at three all with two down.
Getting that third out proved to be a chore as the Bluejays had 18 straight batters reach base after two were down to account for the remaining 19 runs in the inning. Five different players scored three times in the inning for JC, while senior Tyler Congemi– who tied the score with a sac fly– added a two-run double and a three-run double on his next two at-bats in the stanza to account for six RBI.
The Miner-Zephyrs had a chance to get out of the inning down 5-3 when Crotty, who was in relief of Cook, struck out Bradley Trapp; however Trapp reached safely on a passed ball and the Bluejays followed with 17 more runs on five hits, six walks and three errors to put the game out of reach.
“We knew (Johnson Creek) was going to hit the ball and we knew they were capable of scoring runs at any time,” said Strang. If we could have stopped it at 5-3, I would have liked to see how that game would have ended. Once the wheels fall off, sometimes the axle breaks too. We just couldn’t get out of that nightmare inning from hell.”
The Miner-Zephyrs scored single runs in the first, second and third innings to open up an early 3-0 lead on the ‘Jays. Nick Soppe doubled and came in on a single by Crotty to open the scoring, while Kyle Hoppman doubled in Collin Hauser in the second and Hauser drove in Crotty with a bases loaded infield single in the third.
The lead could have been even greater, but Strang’s squad stranded seven runners on base in those first three innings.
Trailing 24-3 in the fifth, senior catcher Jacob Scott ended his career on an up note by doubling in his final at-bat and coming around to score the game’s final run on a pass ball.
Scott, who also scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning in the Miner-Zephyrs’ 3-2 come-from-behind victory over two-time defending D-4 state champion Catholic Central earlier in the day, was the lone senior on the team’s sectional roster.
“He was the glue that held the whole team together this season. He is a great baseball player and an even greater person,” Strang boasted about his senior captain. “He’s definitely going to be missed next year. Someone is going to have to fill some big shoes. He kept the team loose and always wanted to win.”
After claiming the first regional title in the 10-year history of the Shullsburg/Benton co-op and making it within four innings of the first state berth for either school since 1954, expectations will be high next season with the amount of talent returning on the team.
But Strang knows talent alone will not take them to that next step.
“It was a great experience for these guys to get to this level. I hope it makes them hungry to take the next step,” commented the coach. “We’ll have to put in a lot of hard work to get back here and we’re going to need a little luck as well.”
Shullsburg/Benton advanced to the sectional finals following a thrilling 3-2 come-from-behind victory over Catholic Central in a sectional semifinal game earlier in the day.
The Hilltoppers (12-15), who had won three of the last four D-4 state titles and had made four straight trips to state prior to this season, grabbed a 2-1 lead through three innings after scoring a pair of unearned runs off sophomore pitcher Nathan Hendrickson.
Hendrickson shut out the ‘Toppers over the final four frames to keep the Miner-Zephyrs in the game, and his teammates tallied single runs in the sixth and seventh innings to reward the right-hander with the win.
Hendrickson allowed just one-hit during his complete-game gem, and he struck out four batters while scattering five walks.
After stranding a bevy of base runners on the paths through the first five innings, the co-op finally tied the game at two all in the bottom of the sixth on Crotty’s two-out RBI-single.
Scott singled to start the seventh, then advanced to third on an error and a wild pitch. After an intentional walk was issued to Hoppman to load the bases with one out, Soppe hit a grounder to the CC shortstop.
Scott was off third on contact and he slid in ahead of a wild throw to the plate to give the Miner-Zephyrs’ a rousing 3-2 win.
“It felt so good. Catholic Central is a great program and Tom (O’Connell) is a great coach. They may be down a little this year, but they’re still a great team and this was a good win for our program,” admitted Strang.
Johnson Creek advanced to the sectional final by defeating Manitowoc Lutheran (14-11) by a score of 12-2 in their semifinal showdown.
The Hilltoppers were the third team in a row the Miner-Zephyrs beat who had very recent state tournament experience. Unfortunately, their role as giant killer fell apart against Johnson Creek in the nightcap.
Catholic Central (2004, ’05, ’08, ’09, ’10 & ’11), Barneveld (2006, ’09 & ’11), Johnson Creek (2007 & ’12) and Southwestern (2010) have accounted for 12 state berths over the last nine seasons.
WIAA D4 SECTIONAL FINAL
Shulls/Bent………... 111 01 - 4 7 8
Johnson Creek… 00(22) 2x - 24 17 1
Leading Hitters: 2B- Nick Soppe, Kyle Hoppman, Jacob Scott.
WP- Uselman. LP- Matt Cook.
WIAA D4 SECTIONAL SEMIFINAL
Catholic Central… 101 000 0 - 2 1 2
Shulls/Bent………. 010 001 1 - 3 7 3
Leading Hitters: NA.
WP- Nathan Hendrickson. LP- Krueger.
At Burlington on Tuesday, June 5