Waunakee lifts the Division 1 state championship trophy at Fox Cities Stadium this June.
What a thrilling baseball season 2018 turned out to be.
From brutal snow storms until mid-April to walk-off hits in state championship games, this year had it all.
The high school season go out to a rocky – or perhaps snowy is a better word – start, as games were mostly delayed several weeks by a winter that refused to go away. Plenty of teams didn’t even play their first games until the final two weeks of April.
There were still a few games in late March though, and Mount Horeb’s Tyler Denu made them count. The southpaw pitched the second perfect game of his career, striking out nine in a 10-0 win over Lodi in five innings on March 28.
Eventually everybody hit the field, where plenty of walk-offs, no-hitters and other theatrics awaited.
Denu wasn’t the only one to pull off the second brilliant pitching performance of a career. Green Bay Preble’s Ryan Stefiuk pitched his second no-hitter at the Division 1 level in a 9-0 win over Manitowoc Lincoln on April 12.
The regular season also provided some exciting conference title races, perhaps none better than in the Big Eight. In arguably the state’s toughest conference, the championship chase went down to the wire. Contenders Sun Prairie and Janesville Craig – two state powerhouses – squared off on May 23, with the winner all but guaranteed a share of the conference title. Sun Prairie got the better of Craig, winning 9-3. The Cardinals went on to be conference co-champions with Middleton.
The spring playoffs always bring about a heap of excitement across the state, and they delivered this year. The Division 1 state quarterfinals and semifinals were outstanding, with only one of the six games at Fox Cities Stadium being a rout on the opening day of the tournament. In the state semifinals, Waunakee and Green Bay Preble dueled for 11 innings, with both teams routinely getting the winning run on base in extra innings. Waunakee held firm down the stretch, and won 3-2 to advance to the state championship game.
That fantastic first day of the tournament was capped by one of the most memorable Wisconsin high school baseball moments of all-time: A walk-off home run in a minor league park hit by Arrowhead’s Zak Karrels, sending the Warhawks to the Division 1 state championship game with a late-night 2-1 win over Janesville Craig.
Day two of the state tournament, featuring Divisions 2 through 4, was exciting in its own right. The first game of the day saw defending D4 champion Athens take on a Division 2 pitching recruit in Ithaca’s Aaron Huebsch, who is headed to Winona State. Athens, playing for teammate Tucker Westfall – who died late in the season in an UTV crash – emerged victorious, and would eventually defend its state title.
Also on the second day of the state tournament, St. Mary Catholic pitcher T.J. Skrzypczak took a perfect game into the fifth inning of the Division 3 semifinals, and settled for a one-hitter win over Mineral Point.
Championship Thursday gave a fitting farewell to the spring season. In Division 4, Athens prevailed over Thorp 13-10 in one of the most error-laden games you’ll ever see. The two teams combined for 14 errors, but the Bluejays won it in honor of their fallen friend Westfall.
In Division 3, Webster capped a dominant season with a dominant showing in the state championship game. The Tigers (coached by former major leaguer Jarrod Washburn) won 8-2 over St. Mary Catholic, a team that held the nation’s longest win streak just one year ago. Oregon State recruit Jack Washburn struck out 11 in five innings on the mound.
Division 2’s state championship was captured by Waupun, which went coast to coast as the Division’s best team. The Warriors were ranked No. 1 in our D2 preseason rankings, and showed why with an outstanding season. They defeated Jefferson 4-0 in the title game.
And in Division 1, Waunakee capped off a special state tournament by winning its first-ever state championship. The Warriors, powered by Wisconsin Baseball Central Player of the Year Nate Stevens, defeated Arrowhead 3-1 to win the state championship. Stevens, the team’s catcher, drilled an RBI triple in the win, and threw out a runner at second base on a pickoff to snuff out a chance for Arrowhead to tie the game in the fifth inning. Waunakee got a complete game from Derek Lee on the mound. Complete game performances are not all that common in the Division 1 state championship, given that the two competing teams have played two games in three days and are usually running low on pitching by the time they get to the title game.
The end of the spring season set up the WIAA summer and Legion baseball seasons. It was a historic year for WIAA summer ball: it was the last summer season to be sponsored by the WIAA. Beginning next year, all schools participating in WIAA baseball will play in the spring.
The final summer season was certainly memorable. One of the best players the season has ever produced, Oak Creek’s Alex Binelas, made his mark in his senior season. The slugger hit .500 with 11 doubles, eight home runs and two triples in 25 games before leaving Wisconsin to attend Louisville, where he will play college baseball.
Muskego had a wild path to the final WIAA summer championship. The Warriors outlasted perennial power Oak Creek 6-3 in eight innings in the sectional final to advance to the state tournament, and then Rob Zolecki tossed a no-hitter in the state semifinals for a 1-0 win over Plymouth.
Summer high school baseball went out with a bang, with Muskego claiming its first-ever baseball state title thanks to Frankie Cistaro’s walk-off single to defeat top-ranked Pius XI 2-1 in the championship game. It was a fitting end to a summer baseball era that spanned 53 years.
In the Legion baseball season, it was a year full of upsets. Many of the state’s ranked teams fell in regionals, and an unranked team – Sheboygan – went on to win the Class AAA state championship. Sheboygan defeated defending champion Eau Claire 5-2 in a winner-take-all championship game in Marinette. Nobody was hotter than Sheboygan down the stretch. They finished the season winning 18 of their last 24 games.
In Class AA, River Falls won an exciting state championship game over New London, 3-2. It was the third state title since 2011 for River Falls.
Waupun capped one of the best yearlong performances by any Wisconsin baseball program in the last few years by winning the Class A state title. That was Waupun’s second state championship of the year, after they won the WIAA Division 2 title in June.
In national play, Wisconsin had a solid Legion season. At the Great Lakes Regional, in which the winner advances to the Legion World Series, both Sheboygan and Eau Claire advanced to the final four by winning two games. Sheboygan was eventually knocked out by Danville, Illinois, and Eau Claire was defeated by Midland, Michigan – a team that went on to reach the semifinals of the World Series.
In the Division 2 Central Plains Tournament, three teams represented Wisconsin: Waupun, Fennimore and New London. Waupun reached the final game of that tournament, falling in the penultimate game to La Crescent, Minnesota, in walk-off fashion.
Next up: a historic 2019 season. Next year will be the first time in our era that all Wisconsin high school baseball teams will be playing in the same season. All former summer baseball teams will join the spring season, which will remain in a four-division format. In the future, a fifth division may be added (the WIAA made softball a five-division sport in 2017), but for now the status quo remains the same division-wise.
At the very least, having all high school teams competing in one uniform season will be a good thing. Gone are the days when the question could be asked: Could *insert summer champion here* have won the spring state championship?
Enjoy the offseason, because 2019 is shaping up to be as exhilarating as 2018 was.