WAUPUN — In any sport, strong leadership can go a long way toward a team going a long way.
That holds true for the Waupun prep baseball team as it heads into today’s WIAA Division 2 state semifinal against Ellsworth at 8 p.m. at the Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute.
Entering the season, the Warriors (23-2) were the No. 1 team in the Wisconsin Baseball Central Yearbook preseason rankings. The lofty position got members of the team a little too high on themselves.
As a result, the Warriors dropped their season opener 2-1 to Fond du Lac Saint Mary’s Springs.
“They were pretty hungry right away,” Waupun head coach Derrick Standke said. “It’s always nice to get knocked down. It keeps the fire there; it keeps the interest there, the competitive edge there.
“It was nice actually to lose the first game.”
According to senior pitcher Brenden Bille, losing to Springs “opened our minds” right out the gate.
“All of us realized even though we were ranked No. 1, we can lose and anybody can beat us at any time,” he said. “We have to play the way we know how to play and not take anyone lightly. We have a target on our backs.”
That target on the Warriors’ backs was huge as it brought out the best from opposing teams each week. Without solid leadership on the team, it would’ve been tough to handle a grueling season that was often interrupted by snow and rain.
Standke has three three-year starters in junior shortstop Reece Homan, senior second baseman Jak Lenz and senior first baseman Caleb Sauer.
“Those two are obviously our battery,” Standke said of Homan and Lenz up the middle. “They’ve worked together the last three years. Because of our pitching depth (with Bille and junior Caden Bronkhorst), we don’t have a lot of changeover at short with Reece leaving there. It helps with the flow of the game for Jak.”
Homan is the one that makes the spectacular play on a regular basis, but Lenz is the one that leads by example for the Warriors.
“He’s a great student,” Standke said. “He graduated with a 3.9. He’s been a multi-year all-conference player, all-district player and he was selected to play in the Coaches’ Classic this year.”
Lenz seems to be the type of player that does everything right in practice and in games. Even though he struggled at the plate at sectionals last week against Ripon and Waukesha Catholic Memorial, Lenz was still cheering on his teammates and keeping a positive attitude.
“Getting loud on the bench by getting everyone up, I think (is something I tried to do),” Lenz said. “The hardest part for us has been getting energy off the bench. (I’m trying to get) the guys that aren’t batting to get loud and even the guys that aren’t playing in the field to get loud for the pitchers. For me, it’s getting loud.”
Bille has tried to make that a strength all season as the Warriors’ hype guy. When Bille is on the mound, he’s a stud and if you ask any of his teammates what is he like in the dugout, they will tell you they feed of his energy as a vocal presence.
“It’s good to have him being vocal,” Standke said.
Bille trots out sayings like “Thanks for stopping at K-mart; my name is (whoever is pitching). Oh, you’re just swinging by?” if a teammate strikes out a batter. If the other team’s pitcher throws a ball, he likes to say, “Get him a bucket; he’s throwing up.”
That’s why Bille said he always stays positive for his team.
“For me, no matter win or lose, I just always try to stay positive,” Bille said. “Obviously, losing, you have those emotions that run through you, but as soon as those are gone, I just like to stay positive and just think of the good things.”
In the second game of a doubleheader against Berlin on May 4, Standke said the experience and senior leadership of the Warriors helped them answer a four-spot the Indians put up in the first inning. Waupun answered with three runs of their own and ended up winning 15-5.
“I think that was huge for them,” Standke said. “They could’ve folded and said, ‘We’ve never been down (4-0) before.’ But they fought. Like I said, they hate losing.”
The hating to lose part has actually been something that’s never changed for this Waupun group over the last couple of years.
“They’ve been in a lot of close games,” Standke said. “That’s part of where that experience pays off is winning the close games. They get after it. They don’t want to lose by any means. I’ve never seen a group that hates losing more than these guys. They go out and get the job done.”