Central earns return to baseball sectionalsTwo tense wins helped the St. Croix Central advance to the WIAA sectional tournaments for the second straight year.
By: Dave Newman, New Richmond News
Two tense wins helped the St. Croix Central advance to the WIAA sectional tournaments for the second straight year.
The Panthers battled through a rough start to upend Grantsburg in the WIAA regional championship game last Wednesday, 4-3. The night before, the Panthers scored in the bottom of the seventh inning to overcome Turtle Lake-Clayton, 7-6.
The tournaments often create unlikely heroes. In both of these wins, senior Andrew Erickson found himself answering the call when the Panthers needed him most.
Grantsburg was the top seed in the region. Because Mark Shaver and Nick Nygaard had both pitched during the win over Turtle Lake-Clayton, Erickson was sent to the mound to start against Grantsburg. Central coach Mike Fern said he was hoping to get four innings out of Erickson and Nygaard, knowing he had three innings left for Shaver, the team’s ace pitcher.
Erickson pitched into the fourth inning, before Nygaard finished the fourth inning. Erickson earned the win, and high praise from coach Mike Fern.
“It couldn’t happen to a nicer kid,” Fern said. “Andrew throws that off-speed stuff and really screws up hitters.”
Shaver came on with the Panthers holding a 4-3 lead. He pitched three innings of perfect ball, striking out five of the nine Pirate batters he faced to make sure the Panthers would return to sectionals for the second straight year.
Sophomore Luke Brown was inserted into the lineup for these two playoff games and he scored the first run for the Panthers against Grantsburg. Brown singled with one out in the second inning and stole second base. He then scored after two Grantsburg errors.
Central took the lead with three runs in the fourth inning. Jared Fern and Brady Hartung started the inning with singles. Erickson then walked to load the bases. Michael Tilton followed with a two-run single to put the Panthers in front 3-1. Jeff Fern then singled to bring home Erickson with Central’s fourth run.
The offense for the Panthers was balanced, with each Panther reaching base at least once. Brown, Shaver and Jeff Fern each had two hits and Noah Bollom walked three times.
With the win over Grantsburg, the Panthers take a 16-5 record into the sectional tournament.
The win over Turtle Lake-Clayton ended up being a thriller. Central fell behind early as TL-C scored four runs off Nygaard in the first inning. Central gradually made its way back into the game. Nygaard got the comeback started, pounding a solo homer over the fence at Central in right-centerfield. The Panthers tied the game with three runs in the third inning. Consecutive walks to Jeff Fern, Shaver and Bollom loaded the bases. TL-C brought in a relief pitcher at this point. Nygaard greeted him rudely, lining a two-run double to the base of the fence in centerfield. Bollom then scored the tying run on a groundout by Hartung.
The game didn’t stay tied long. Turtle Lake loaded the bases against Nygaard in the fourth inning. Shaver was brought in, and the first pitch he delivered was drilled for a two-run double. He quickly got things under control and the Lakers didn’t do any further damage.
The Lakers’ defense fell apart in the bottom of the fourth. Brown reached on an error and scored when Jeff Fern reached on an error. Fern scored on a wild pitch and a throwing error by the Laker catcher.
The teams then went through the fifth and sixth innings without scoring. The Panthers quickly decided the game in the bottom of the seventh. Jared Fern led off the inning with an infield hit. Hartung then bunted Fern to second base.
That brought Erickson to the plate, and he filled the hero’s role. On the first pitch he saw, he drilled a single to rightfield, scoring Fern with the winning run.
In last year’s sectional tournament, the Panthers lost an outstanding game against Eau Claire Regis by a 1-0 score. Coach Fern said the experience the Panthers gained last year should help them in this year’s tournament.
“It does make a difference,” Fern said. “I don’t think these kids will feel the pressure.”
If the Panthers win the sectional tournament, they would advance to the WIAA Division 3 state tournament which will be played at Fox Valley Stadium in Grand Chute from June 11-12.