As a sophomore, in a game against West Salem, Viroqua High School starting pitcher Mitch Stalsberg unleashed a fastball that was different than his prototypical heater.
The ball traveled at its typical velocity, but it possessed some movement that not only caught the eye of the batter but also Stalsberg and his coaching staff.
“It was kind of a fluke,” Stalsberg said. “(Pitching) coach (Dale Tylka) called fastball, and it kind of slipped out of my hand a little bit, and it started spinning.
“He asked me what that was and I said, ‘It came out a little weird’ and he said that we should work on it.”
Stalsberg continued to develop his cutter and now has four pitches in his arsenal, including a fastball, changeup and curve.
“He was struggling with his fastball so we decided to change grips,” Tylka said. “All of a sudden it started to break, and (the cutter) has turned out to be a pretty good pitch for him.”
Though Stalsberg may have found this cutter via a fluke pitch one day, what he’s been able to do with it has been no fluke.
This season, the left-handed junior has been one of the elite pitchers in the area with a 5-0 record and a 1.11 ERA. He’s struck out 92 batters and walked just 29.
His ability to make batters miss has been astonishing this season, but his coaches have been more impressed with his ability to hit the strike zone consistently.
“Early (last season), he struggled with it,” Viroqua coach Pete Swanson said of Stalsberg’s control. “Later in the year, he got that figured and now he’s on fire, I guess.”
That’s one way to put it. Swanson, who has been coaching on the Viroqua baseball scene for 41 years, said Stalsberg is among the best pitchers he’s ever coached in his storied career.
Yes, that includes Skipp Benzing, who signed signed with the Boston Red Sox organization in 1996, and Dean Rockweiler, who signed with the Montreal Expos organization in 1986.
“We’ve had some really good pitchers,” Swanson said. “Mitch is, at least, right there with them.”
Swanson had high hopes for Stalsberg heading into this season, but he has since making him a big part of the team when he joined it as a freshman.
The only real question entering the season was control. Would he maintain his accuracy he developed midway through his sophomore season, or would he revert back to his wild early-season days?
A 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season seems to be answering that question.
“I’m not trying to throw as hard. I’m focusing more on the zone,” Stalsberg said. “Last year, at the beginning of the season, it was rough. I was throwing all over, but I’ve toned it down a bit and am hitting the zone a little bit more.”
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Stalsberg completed his regular season Monday with a 5-2 complete-game victory over Onalaska Luther that gave the Blackhawks (13-7) a share of their second straight Coulee Conference title. Stalsberg struck out 14 and flexed his muscles at the plate with his second grand slam of the season.
“I worked on my hitting in the fall,” he said. “That’s helped.”
Stalsberg, who occupies the No. 3 spot in the Blackhawks’ lineup, is batting almost .400 with three home runs and 21 RBI.
“Last year I think I had one home run and not a lot of extra-base hits,” Stalsberg said. “This year, I’ve been stepping it up.”
Stalsberg hasn’t been the only member of the Blackhawks stepping it up over the past few weeks. Swanson said the team struggled early on with consistency and team chemistry, but things have since come together.
A good sign for the top-seeded Blackhawks as they prepare for the WIAA Division 2 postseason, which begins Tuesday against either fifth-seeded Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau or fourth-seeded Nekoosa.
“We just have to keep playing as a team and keep hitting, because that has kind of been a down point,” Stalsberg said. “Everyone just needs to play their role to help the team win.”
POSTSEASON OUTLOOK: The only potential ranked opponent that eighth-ranked Holmen may have to play won’t come until the Division 1 sectional finals at Copeland Park.
Ninth-ranked Waunakee received the top seed, and the Vikings, who dropped two games over the weekend, were give the No. 2 seed.
Logan got the No. 3 seed, while Central and Onalaska were given the fifth and sixth seeds, respectively.
The MVC was an exciting conference to watch this season with any team possessing the ability to win on any given night, so it should continue to be interesting in the postseason.
Both Viroqua and West Salem could do some damage in the Division 2 tournament.
If both the Blackhawks and Panthers win their games Tuesday, they will meet May 30, with a trip to the sectional tournament on the line.
The winner, however, could have to go through seventh-ranked Ellsworth or ninth-ranked Altoona, depending on how the other regional plays out.
If the Blackhawks continue to win, they will have the luxury of playing on their home field until the state tournament in Grand Chute, Wis.
In Division 3, Aquinas or Westby are the two likely candidates to prevail from their regional, however, ninth-ranked Neillsville could be waiting in the opening round of the sectional.
Fifth-ranked De Soto is in a good position to make a deep postseason run in the Division 4 tournament as the only ranked team in its regional or sectional.