The West Salem High School baseball team had always been a successful one under the direction of hall of fame coach Chuck Ihle, but one distinction — state champion — eluded it for years.
That is, until mid-June.
The Panthers — behind a high-powered offense and an incredible sprinting catch by Austin Kennedy — captured their school’s first WIAA Division 2 state championship, defeating Waupun 8-6 at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute, Wis. The Panthers’ title is the No. 9 pick in the Tribune’s top 10 sports stories of the year, netting 17 points.
After taking an 8-2 lead in the state championship, West Salem had to hold off a late push from Waupun to seal its victory. The win was made all the more impressive by the fact that the Panthers did it on little sleep — due to rain delays, the team’s semifinal didn’t start until after 9 p.m. and ended around midnight. Their championship game started in the early afternoon the following day.
West Salem went 24-4 en route to its first championship, and two Panthers — shortstop Braxton Ghelfi and pitcher Alex Jeranek — were named Tribune co-players of the year. Many of the same players continued the momentum from the title win to another championship in American Legion play this past summer.
The Panthers broke through after building a reputation as a consistent state qualifier when it was a summer program and through its transition to a spring schedule.
West Salem was making its third straight state appearance and and seventh since 2008. The semifinal win was the Panthers’ first state victory since 2010.