RIPON — Before Dean Slark entered his first season as head coach of the Markesan baseball team, he sat down with each one of the players to discuss the expectations for the 2019 season.

Slark wanted to get a better understanding of what the Hornets’ goals were. What he found was that many of them wanted to win a Trailways West Conference title.

Slark — who played for Sauk Prairie teams that were the WIAA Division 2 1995 runner-up and 1996 state champion — told his players to aim higher. He wanted them to strive for a state championship.

“If the kids take anything away from this season is that for all their sports they do is to not settle for a second-tier conference championship or a regional championship,” Slark said Friday at Ripon College’s baseball facility, where Markesan is practicing in advance of the program’s third state tournament appearance. “You start at the top and work your hardest. If the cards don’t work the way you want them to, you still had a successful year because you had the one goal in mind.”

The Hornets bought into what their first-year head coach had to say because they racked up a 21-5 overall record, won a Trailways West title with a 14-0 record and powered through the postseason. Now they get to play in the WIAA Division 3 state semifinals against Ozaukee this afternoon at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute.

“I liked it because I want to be pushed,” said Markesan senior pitcher Shane Ryan, who is making his second appearance at the state tournament with the Hornets.

He played shortstop as a freshman in 2016 when the Hornets played at Fox Cities Stadium for the first time since 1957.

In order to make sure his team bought in, he tested their mental toughness early in the season and the Hornets answered with a 10-1 record.

“For him to have faith in us and push us as hard as he did — while keeping us happy with him as our head coach — was great,” Ryan said.

Slark knew they had the talent to have a special season because he coached all the current players as middle schoolers. That experience paid huge dividends as it helped Slark understand how to work with each personality on the team.

“I knew how kids respond to different things,” he said. “Some respond better to a little chewing and some of them respond better to just talking it through and being a little lighter on them.”

“He doesn’t yell at you much,” Markesan senior utility player Craig Plagenz said. “He’ll let you know (what’s wrong) and hold you to it, which is something to respect. He’s fun because he tells jokes. He’s a fun guy to be around.”

It led to a special season for the Hornets, who finished the regular season ranked sixth in Division 3 in the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association poll.

“I think he definitely can see the talent we have,” Plagenz said. “It’s nice he sees that. He holds us to that standard to play well and go far. I respect that.”

Slark inherited a set of two special pitchers in Ryan and sophomore Bryce Leedle and a great defense behind them.

Ryan is undefeated at 11-0 on the mound with a team-high 101 strikeouts. He’s given up just seven runs, four earned, on 25 hits and 21 walks. Meanwhile, Leedle is 7-0 and is second on the team with 73 strikeouts. Leedle gave up five runs, three earned, on 10 hits and 20 walks.

The Hornets currently have a .941 fielding percentage with 35 errors.

“I knew from middle school that they could field the ball,” Slark said.

While Markesan made a name for itself through pitching and defense, the Hornets had exceptional offense as well.

There were five batters with batting .300 or better, highlighted by Josh Boening (.413) and Sage Stellmacher (.410). Boening has 12 RBIs with three doubles and a triple, while Stellmacher has a team-high 23 RBIs with six doubles.

Ryan is third on the team at .377 and leads the team with three homers. Leedle has a .356 batting average with six doubles and one triple. Max Stellmacher has a .307 batting average with 13 RBIs and three doubles.

“We’ve always had really good at-bats, but that hasn’t really been our calling card this year,” Slark said. “We do get the hits and runs when we need them, but pitching and defense is where we’ve got to start.”

Tough defense and timely hitting is the reason why they got out of sectionals last Tuesday. In the semifinal, Markesan trailed 1-0 before having back-to-back three-run innings in the sixth and seventh to beat Lake Mills Lakeside Lutheran 6-1. Then the Hornets held off second-ranked Prairie du Chien 3-1 in the finals.

“Being a first-year coach, it’s pretty cool — from talking to other coaches — to get to state someday,” Slark said. “For me to be fortunate to have the skilled players that we do and for things to all line up the way they did at sectionals, I feel very fortunate. I don’t take it for granted.

“There are some very good programs at sectionals and it could’ve went either way. Almost any of our playoff games, the ball could’ve bounced a different way and we could’ve been eliminated.”

But the Hornets got to where they are now because they did what Slark asked — worked hard and believed.

“As soon as we got into sectionals, I felt like we could really make it,” senior first baseman Tristan Dillie said. “I thought we could play with anyone there. As coach Slark said all year, ‘We can beat any single team in the state.’ I really believe that.”

Follow Mark McMullen on Twitter @mmcmull2 or contact him at 920-356-6754.

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