BANGOR — During the course of one summer, Ashton Michek went for being a pitcher that was very difficult to hit to one that was nearly unhittable.
The Bangor High School senior credits the summer after his junior season for a significant amount of growth that has played a big role in the Cardinals qualifying for the WIAA state tournament for the first time in 26 years.
“My curveball and changeup weren’t that crazy, and I couldn’t spot them,” Michek said. “That’s something I’ve been working on my entire pitching career.
“You have to have a pitch that isn’t a fastball that you can throw in a 2-2 or 3-2 count. You have to trust that pitch, and I think that clicked for me last summer.”
Michek was very good when he could beat opponents with a fastball, but the senior left-hander has reached a new level during a 21-5 season that continues Wednesday on Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute, Wis.
The third-seeded Cardinals are matched up with second-seeded Marshfield Columbus Catholic (20-3) in the semifinal round. They will play each other after top-seeded Eau Claire Regis (21-1) plays fourth-seeded Oakfield (17-5) at 8 a.m. in the first semifinal.
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Logic would say that Michek will start the semifinal game, but coach Todd Grant made a strategical decision to hold Michek for the championship game at last week’s sectional.
He instead pitched sophomore Chase Horstman in the semifinal, which turned into a 3-1 victory over Ithaca. Horstman has been more than a solid No. 2 to Michek, and he struck out five and allowed just one hit over five innings against the Bulldogs.
“It’s been great to have him step up the way he has,” Michek said of Horstman, who has an 8-1 record and 0.69 ERA. “He’s coming up big in big situations, like the sectional semifinal, and it’s awesome to have the kind of trust we have in a sophomore.”
The trust in Michek has been there since he stepped on the mound as a freshman and done nothing but grow.
He has pitched 62⅓ innings and has a 9-1 record over 15 games as a senior. He has an ERA of 0.45 and 139 strikeouts against 12 walks. He has allowed 16 hits and four earned runs and will pitch at NCAA Division II Augustana University (S.D.) after graduation.
“We’ve seen a lot of improvement since his freshman year,” Grant said of Michek, who has pitched four no-hitters this season. “He’s much more efficient and really knows how to pitch. He isn’t just a thrower.
“He can pitch his spots and set people of for the breaking ball when he’s ready to use it.”
The seriousness with which Michek takes his growth as a player has certainly rubbed off on Horstman, which has helped make the Cardinals such a tough team to beat.
Catcher Mathieu Oesterle thinks the two pitchers at the top of the staff complement each other well and both give Bangor a great chance to win regardless of the opponent.
“I love working with these guys,” Oesterle said. “I’ve been catching Ashton all my life, and I can see how much better he gets every year that goes by.
“Chase, being young, it can be intimidating to go out there in big games, but he does a really good job. Ashton is really good at staying calm and finishing. Chase can get tired, but he pushes through that, he pushes through having guys on base and just does a good job of getting out of any trouble.”
But the Cardinals can also swing their bats, which could be a benefit of the confidence that comes with having this sort of pitching staff.
Michek bats .529 and went 6 for 8 during the two sectional games. He has doubled 20 times, tripled four times and driven in a team-high 29 runs. Horstman bats .380 with 19 RBI, and sophomore outfielder Samuel Cropp bats .369 and has driven in 26 runs.
The Cardinals had 21 hits in the sectional and took a .333 team batting average into it.
The Dons enter the state semifinal with a team ERA of 3.36 and a pitching staff that doesn’t overpower hitters. Columbus Catholic pitchers have only struck out 133 batters and walked 107, relying more on the defense behind them to make plays.
“We saw them play when they came to Westby this year, and they have a very good hitting team,” Grant said. “We’re going to have to pitch like we’ve been pitching and make plays behind them.”
The Dons are led at the plate by senior catcher Cole Timmler and senior outfielder Brock Bennington. Timler bats .538 and Bennington .515. Timler slugs .800 with eight doubles, three triples, a home run and 40 RBI, and Bennington slugs .926 with eight doubles, six home runs and 33 RBI.
Todd Sommerfeldt can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @SommerfeldtLAX