SPARTA — The excitement that surrounded the Onalaska High School softball team when it began practicing two months ago had to be greeted with a dose of reality.
Winning the MVC championship wasn’t out of question for a program that hadn’t done so in 21 years, but it wasn’t going to be easy.
There was a team with a downright scary batting order and very good pitcher in Kylee Schams over in Holmen. Central was going to be a factor if pitcher Leah Kramer was healthy, too.
Onalaska coach Mesa Heit knew the Hilltoppers could contend, but a lot had to happen for a team that hadn’t enjoyed a winning conference record since 2002 to win a title.
That’s why the tears flew immediately when Heit was asked about the importance of Tuesday’s 11-1 victory over Sparta on a warm and windy day at Memorial Park. It gave the Hilltoppers (16-4, 9-2) no worse than a share of the championship and assured them a chance to win the title outright.
“This is very important,” she said before a long pause. “It’s been 21 years. It’s been a lot of hard work.”
The question marks were easy to find in March, and they remained when the team lost four of its first seven games. The Red Raiders handled the Hilltoppers 4-1 in the conference opener, and the Vikings dropped them to 0-2 by beating them 4-2 one week later.
Was freshman Sarah Kraus — the eighth-grader who generated plenty of buzz last season as the next pitching phenom in the Coulee Region — ready to lead the way in the circle?
Could Heit find the best way to utilize a load of young talent effectively?
How hard would it be to push 14 straight losing MVC seasons — meaning no one on the roster had ever seen the team win more than it lost — from memory?
We’ll answer those in reverse order.
Senior shortstop Hallie Schmeling helped Onalaska’s girls basketball team become a WIAA state tournament qualifier for the first time in program history as a junior, so she has had a hand in two turnarounds.
The Hilltoppers struggled in both sports when she watched them as a kid, and that provided all of the necessary motivation when she reached high school.
“We knew we had talent with the kids our age, and we had a lot of people who were willing to work hard,” Schmeling said. “That’s what we had to do.
“Even this year, there were a lot of people who thought we’d finish in the middle of the pack, but we wanted to show them what we could do.”
Schmeling, who is batting over .400 has been a captain since her sophomore season. While it is easy to look at the influx of freshman and sophomore talent on the field and determine that to be the difference, Schmeling deserves a chunk of credit, too.
“Hallie is a true leader, and she takes that role of captain seriously,” said Heit, who was a sixth-grader when Onalaska shared the 1996 title with Central and is coaching the team for a third season. “She talks on the field, she’s there for anything anyone needs, and she’s a player out there who is making plays that make people say, ‘Wow, how did Hallie do that?’”
If Schmeling thought the team could win this year, her teammates would believe, too.
Onalaska’s starting lineup contains four sophomores and three freshmen.
Heit really hit on something by putting all three of her freshmen together at the bottom of the batting order.
They have improved consistently since being grouped together and reached base eight times in 12 plate appearances against the Spartans.
Kraus, who bats eighth, was 3-for-4 and scored three runs. Cailie Kowal — she hits seventh — reached twice, drove in a run and scored once. Camden Lindsey reached twice, scored twice and had a sacrifice bunt from the No. 9 spot.
But the biggest factor of all was going to be the transition for Kraus, who faced expectations that went through the roof when she joined the team.
Kraus has responded by pitching three no-hitters and shutting down offense after offense.
That Holmen team mentioned earlier? It blasted eight home runs in a 22-11 win over a state-ranked Onalaska Luther team on Monday, but it managed just one hit against Kraus the last time it faced off with her.
Kraus, who held Sparta hitless until the fifth inning on Tuesday, said the pressure to perform never reached her. She felt comfortable the first time she walked on the field and has grown more comfortable with each start.
Kraus struck out 12, walked one and allowed three hits while mowing down the Spartans to help put the team where it wants to be to chase another piece of history on Thursday.
Onalaska will be the outright MVC champion for the first time since 1991 if it closes out with a win over Tomah. The Hilltoppers beat the Timberwolves 3-1 in the first meeting and have the chance to add to the momentum it would take into the postseason.
“We have another game we want to get when we play Tomah,” said Kraus, whose team has won 13 straight games. “Then we’ll worry about what comes after that.”