Eleva-Strum has top seed in first-ever state baseball tournament

WIAA Division 4 State Baseball Preview

CENTRAL - For the first time this 2024 prep baseball season a group of voters has put Eleva-Strum High School team first.

The Cardinals were chosen the No. 1 seed for next week's WIAA Division 4 State Baseball Tournament to be played at Neuroscience Group Field in Grand Chute just outside of Appleton, home of the Milwaukee Brewers minor league affiliate Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

E-S (21-8 overall) is playing the No. 4 seed Cardinals of Stevens Point Pacelli (18-11) in the D-4 state semifinals, the second game of the morning session which begins at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, June 11. If they win they will play No. 2 seed Johnson Creek (24-4) or No. 3 seed Minong Northwood/Solon Springs (19-1), who play in the first game of the day at 9 a.m. The other semi will start 35 minutes after the first game is concluded. The championship game is set for 9 a.m. on Thursday.

The Cardinals are the co-champions of the Dairyland Conference during the regular season. Central defeated six ranked foes during the season, four of them in the tournament. After knocking off Wisconsin Rapids Assumption (4-0) in the first round of the regional tournament, the Cards beat No. 6 Marshfield Columbus (2-1) and No. 4 Bangor (3-2) to win the regional title, then downed No. 2 ranked and seeded Pittsville (4-0) and No. 12 ranked and No. 2 seed Royall (2-1) in the Blair-Taylor Sectional Tournament on Tuesday. The Cardinals were a No. 5 seed in the tournament and ranked No. 14 at the end of the regular season, their number of losses probably keeping them out of the Top 10 despite their tough schedule. If that fact fueled a competitive fire for the Redbirds in the postseason, so be it along with the desire to finally make the state tournament after losing in the sectional finals to Ithaca last year 6-2 and then watching the same Bulldog squad go on to win the D-4 state title.

"I really think playing such good competition throughout the regular season gave us a huge advantage," E-S's Carter Gunderson said. "Seeing such good pitching and high level players helped put us in situations we haven’t been in before. Playing Pewaukee at American Family Field (in Milwaukee) was an amazing experience for us, but it also put us on a big stage against a very good opponent. Them scoring the first few runs and us having to come from behind helped us gain confidence knowing the game isn’t over even if we get down to start."

And knowing how to win such close games as it turns out. Eleva-Strum and Royall were tied 1-1 going in to the seventh inning of the sectional finals. There Gunderson, the winning pitcher in a complete game, struck out the side. He then beat the throw to the plate and attempted tag off teammate Noah Martinson's single with one out. Gunderson, and Calvin Barneson were both on base after hitting singles in the inning. Gunderson struck out six Royall batters.

"I think we’ve been handed a ton of adversity but also handled it really well" Gunderson, who made a big catch at first base that helped E-S upset then No. 1 ranked Pewaukee at American Family Field, said. "Dropping some of the big games hurt us at the time but really helped us down the stretch of the season. None of our playoff games so far have been blow outs, most have come down to be a one run game. At this point last year, we hadn’t really seen the level of competition like we have this year, so getting to see that put us in many one run situations. Some we didn’t end up winning and some we did, but the key thing is, it put us in that nerve racking position and prepared us for these big playoff games."

Of all the wins they've had over these ranked opponents, the one over Pittsville was probably the easiest despite their ranking. That's because the Panthers committed five errors that helped the Cards get their base runners on and score their runs. Justin Becker had two hits for E-S and the Cards also got hits from Jake Bjerke and Garrett Zimple and got wins from Brody Hanson, Brady Nichols and Becker. Ty Webb pitched a complete-game shutout which gave the Cardinals complete flexibility with their pitching staff, unlike with Royall which had to go back to their starter from their 9-1 win over DeSoto in the other semifinals with just 18 pitches left he could in hopes of getting out of the seventh, which they were unable to do. It was the Cardinals eighth-straight win.

E-S has eight players on their roster that have thrown innings this season with Webb having the best ERA at 1.18 with 60 strikeouts and only six earned runs and nine walks. Gunderson's ERA is 1.63 with 20 earned runs, 71 strikeouts and nine walks. Five of their pitchers have ERA's below 2.00. Seven of their players have batting averages .250 and better. Becker is the team leader in both runs (27) and hits (24) with Nichols, Gunderson and Alex Anderson all having 20 or more runs and hits. Five players have 15 or more RBIs with Anderson the team-leader with 22 and he leads the team in doubles with eight.

Second-seeded Johnson Creek will make its fifth State appearance and its first since 2018. The Bluejays have advanced to the championship game twice. They won the Division 4 title in 2007 and finished runner-up in 2012. Their initial State appearance came way back in 1953 when there was only one division of play. This spring, they finished second in the South Division of the Trailways Conference. They cruised to a six-inning, 14-2 win over Barneveld in the sectional final played at Johnson Creek to advance to the State semifinals. The Northwood/Solon Springs (NSS) co-op is seeded third. The Green Eagles will embark on their first-ever experience in the State Tournament. A 10-2 result versus Rib Lake in the Bruce Sectional final to punch their ticket to the semifinals. They are the champions in the East Division of the Lakeland Conference. Fourth-seeded Stevens Point Pacelli makes its third state tourney appearance and its first since 2007. The Cardinals won the Division 3 championship in their first and only other experience in 2003. They were the runners-up in the South Division of the Central Wisconsin Conference standings this spring. The Cardinals advanced through the sectional played in Rosholt by rolling over Niagara.

Pacelli was 9-9 at one point in its season after being swept in a doubleheader by Bonduel. Since then they've won nine of 11 ballgames. The Cardinals are led by veteran head coach Wayne Sankey who's been there for 26 years. Three of their players have .350 or better batting averages including senior pitcher Asher Jordan at .453, junior second baseman and pitcher Lucas Hammerle at .382 and Grant Hinker at .353. Jordan and Hammerle are the Cardinals' top pitchers as well along with junior Keltin Opper, who leads the team with 57 strikeouts. All their pitchers are over 2.00 in ERA. Jordan leads the team in RBIs with 36 while senior outfielder and pitcher Payton Flees has 28 RBIs. Flees has a team-best 36 hits, seven doubles and two home runs while junior shortstop Malise Beduhn has 27 runs and 24 hits

Johnson Creek was the state's top-ranked team in Division 4 for most of the season. The Bluejays certainly know how to hit with eight players with .300 batting averages or better and six of those over .400 in batting averages. Senior Taylor Joseph is the team's top hitter with 39, 45 runs scored, eight doubles, four triples and five home runs. Sophomore Aiden Smith has a team-best 36 RBIs and junior Zach Holland also has impressive stats with 35 hits, 24 runs, 34 RBIs 10 doubles, three triples and three home runs. Senior pitcher Dylan Bredlow has a 1.02 ERA with 75 strikeouts, 31 walks and an 8-2 record. Dugg Hartwig, a junior, has a 6-1 record with a 1.24 ERA and 38 strikeouts. Three of JC's four losses have come against schools about their size while only one loss for Eleva-Strum was like that.

Like Eleva-Strum, NSS is playing its very first state tournament not just as a co-op program but also for both schools Minong Northwood and Solon Springs. NSS has not lost to a team in the state of Wisconsin this season as their only loss came to Proctor, Minn (4-1). The Eagles have a win over the biggest school in their area, Superior (4-2), and Unity (9-7) as well. Ten of their 19 wins were shutouts and 13 of their wins were by seven runs or more. Junior pitcher Jared Schultz has a 0.39 ERA with an 8-0 record, 63 strikeouts, just two earned runs and 14 walks given up. Senior Abraham Ahlberg is the Eagles No. 2 pitcher and he's 6-0 with a 0.62 ERA with 102 strikeouts, nine walks and four earned runs given up. They also happen to be the Eagles' best hitters as Schultz has a .580 batting average with 33 runs, 29 hits, 31 RBIs, eight doubles, two triples and two home runs. Ahlberg has a .444 batting average with 30 runs, 20 hits, 17 RBIs, five doubles and five home runs. Other top hitters for NSS are senior Alex Silvensky with a .354 batting average and 23 RBIs and sophomore Isiah Ahlberg with 23 RBIs and seven doubles.


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