GRAND CHUTE, Wis. — Tyler Ihrcke needed a moment. Just a moment. He crouched down on some grass between the pitcher’s mound and first base at Fox Cities Stadium, knowing that all that stood between the Westby High School baseball team and a rare appearance in a WIAA state championship game was one out.
“I was just trying to relax,” said Ihrcke, one of nine Norsemen seniors hardened by previous playoff disappointment. “And finish the job.”
He did just that. Ihrcke got Deerfield’s best hitter, Cole Erickson, to ground into a fielder’s choice, and the Norsemen, with a team full of Tyler Ihrckes, advanced to their
first state championship game in 16 years with a 2-1 victory over the Demons in a tense Division 3 state semifinal Wednesday afternoon.
Westby (21-4) plays Oconto (15-4) in the state championship at noon today.
The triumph was a testament to the gritty senior leadership that defines this Westby club, the one that finally pushed through the sectional to the state tournament for the first time since coach John Hamilton led it to a Division 2 runner-up finish in 1997, his first year at Westby.
“The seniors got us here,” Hamilton said. “Hopefully, they can give us one more.”
Coaches always talk about their seniors, like turning a year older automatically bestows upon you special powers. Westby’s seniors earned their stripes through years of playoff disappointment in several sports.
Now, it’s all starting to come together, and Thursday was a perfect example.
It was Nick Schroeder, the team’s No. 8 hitter who started the winning rally against Orfordville Parkview in the sectional final, going 2-for-3 with a clutch, two-out RBI single to tie the game in the bottom of the fourth.
It was third basemen Alex Midtlien making a nice play on a sharp ground ball with the bases loaded and throwing home to get the lead runner and minimize the damage in the only inning Deerfield scored.
It was Nick Neely doing just enough with a curveball to score Alex Robson with the go-ahead run in the bottom of the fifth.
“I wish I would have gotten ahold of it,” said Neely, who still managed to be productive with a sacrifice fly even if he was hoping for something a little more dramatic.
And it was Ihrcke, who battled his way out of some tight jams, thanks to a defense behind him that didn’t make an error.
“That’s Tyler,” Hamilton said. “He’ll go through some spells where he seems to tire a little bit, but he seems to find a way to get himself back into it. He’s our guy.”
Neely moved to Westby in second grade. That summer, he caught Ihrcke for the first time. The two have been a battery ever since, playing with many of the guys they took the field with Thursday.
“Tyler was great today,” Neely said. “Just great.”
Ihrcke gave up eight hits — four came in the fourth inning when Deerfield only managed to push across one run — and struck out five. But he only walked one.
“I was always thinking next pitch, next pitch,” Ihrcke said. “Just tried to relax and pound the knees. Not get too worked up over anything.”
Deerfield (18-5), ranked fourth in the last state coaches poll, didn’t either, but the Demons did flinch a couple times and the Norsemen were there to take advantage.
The big one came in the bottom of the fourth. With two outs and a runner on second, Westby junior Zach Dwyer’s grounder to short went through the legs of Deerfield senior Nick Brown. The next batter was Schroeder, who lined his second hit of the day to center, scoring courtesy runner Jared Anderson to tie the game.
“That’s where that senior aspect comes in,” Hamilton said. “That was a kid in a big game in a big moment, but the moment wasn’t too big for him.”
Westby went ahead the following inning when Robson and Alex Bluske led off with singles. Ihrcke then reached on a sacrifice bunt attempt when Deerfield second basemen Blake Ehrke didn’t get his foot down when taking the throw. That led to Neely’s sacrifice fly and a 2-1 lead.
Deerfield got out of the inning when junior Cole Erickson, who struck out five and walked one, got Mitchell Larson to bounce into a 6-4-3 double play.
But that didn’t rob Westby of any momentum. These guys have played together too long for that to happen.
“This is an old team,” Schroeder said. “A lot of senior leadership. A lot of junior leadership. We were all calm throughout the day. We picked each other up. We weren’t worried for a second.”
They’ll have one more game together as Norsemen, and they’ll try to become the first team in school history to win a baseball state championship.
“We showed great poise and composure,” Hamilton said. “Either team could have let that thing get away because both teams had opportunities. But I certainly look to our seniors. We have all the way through. That’s something I’ve preached all the way through.”