It’s rarely an easy or pretty path en route to winning a state championship.
The two-time WIAA state summer baseball champions from Menomonee Falls can testify to that, such as in their tense opening round regional win over Whitefish Bay in 2015 or their heart-stopping sectional triumph over Grafton last season.
But junior designated hitter Ryan Spalding, who was the starting catcher on last year’s title squad, explained the Indians mojo’ this way:
“We’re made for the playoffs. We win as a team.”
There’s something to be said for that, as Spalding ripped a single to left to score sophomore outfielder Dayne Fuiten in the bottom of the seventh as the Indians overcame several baserunning errors and a stubborn underdog Cedarburg team to win their WIAA regional final on June 13 at Trenary, 4-3.
It was Spalding’s third RBI of the game, as the third-seeded in sectional play Falls (22-9) won its 11th straight WIAA tournament game and advanced to a sectional semifinal game on Monday, July 17 against upstart Kewaskum (9-13), which upset second-seeded Germantown, 1-0, tonight.
The Indians have battled through injuries and other issues this summer but will still be around to seek their third straight WIAA state tournament berth at the sectional, which will have its final on Monday, July 17 at 4:30 p.m. back at Whitefish Bay.
Unbeaten North Shore Conference champion and sectional top seed West Bend West is the heavy favorite to win and advance to state.
But the Spartans were so last year before the Indian bats burst West’s bubble in a 10-6 sectional final victory.
Falls coach Pat Hansen is just happy that his team lived to fight another day.
“It doesn’t matter if you win 20-0 or 4-3,” he said. “We move on all the same.”
Hansen, who was recently named Greater Metro Conference coach of the year, said it’s been a particularly gratifying season as Falls adapted to life without former state player of the year and University of Illinois recruit Ty Weber and a host of other seniors who played huge roles in the twin championships.
As noted, it has never been easy.
“We’ve overcame a lot,” he said. “Spalding hasn’t caught an inning all season (due to a wrist injury in football last fall). Tommy Howard (starting infielder) has been in and out of the line-up and Nick Gile (all-state shortstop and pitcher) hasn’t played all season (because of a knee injury).
“The way I look at it, we use two main measuring sticks for a successful season. Get to 20 wins and advance to (WIAA) sectional. These kids have done both.”
But as noted, they had to work for it.
First, Cedarburg pitcher Nathan Hucko didn’t ‘wow’ anyone, but after the Indians pushed across two runs in the first, he settled down and kept his team in the game. He had no strikeouts but issued only two walks.
Secondly, Falls had problems on the basepaths. After sophomore Dayne Fuiten knocked in a run with a triple and then later scored on a sacrifice fly by Spalding in the first, scoring became an issue for the Indians.
In the third, a runner on second was picked off second by Hucko. That became critical when shortly thereafter Fuiten hit his second triple of the game and was left stranded at third.
The Indians got another runner to third in the fourth but also could not score.
Meanwhile, Falls ace Logan Roble, after four quiet innings, could not get out of the fifth as a pair of two-out RBI singles by the Bulldogs tied the game.
Falls got the lead back in its half of the fifth on another sacrifice fly by Spalding, but with first and third and two out, another baserunning gaffe’, one that Hansen will take partial responsibility for, saw Fuiten get caught stealing for the final out of the inning to end the threat.
Eleventh-seeded Cedarburg, which had advanced to the Falls game with an upset of sixth-seeded Nicolet in a regional semifinal on June 12, took advantage yet again as a controversial double by Alex Russo to start the sixth (the ball appeared to bounce off a Falls’ outfielder’s glove in foul territory down the first base line) led to Nick Johnson’s game-tieing RBI single.
The large Trenary crowd got very nervous in the bottom of the sixth when the Indians had runners on second and third with just one out but failed to score a runner.
“I can think of at least two times where we had a runner on third and less than two out and we couldn’t get him home,” said Hansen.
“Some of those pop-ups really came back to hurt us.”
But Falls, as Spalding said, is made for moments like these.
Sophomore winning pitcher Ben Heitman got around a leadoff walk in the seventh and then the Indians were able to finally end the drama.
Fuiten lashed a two-out double, his third hit of the game, and then Spalding picked up his clinching RBI with his hard single to left. The ball slipped past the Cedarburg outfielder for a moment, but Fuiten was already charging hard for home and likely would have scored anyway.
Hansen has been very impressed with Fuiten.
“He started the year on JV and was just hitting the heck out of the ball there,” said Hansen. “We expected some dropoff when he got to varsity but he’s hit the ball hard ever since he’s got here (on varsity).”
Spalding said the dugout, which had been water-logged in the morning due to heavy June 12 evening rains, stayed upbeat even with all the small calamities.
“We were very positive,” he said. “Positivity has been a big trait of this team all season. We stay together as a team. I’ve never seen a team as close as this one. We’re still here, still doing it (in the playoffs).”
“We stayed with it,” he said. “We pulled through. We’re in the sectional and now we’ll see what happens.”