A promising season came to an abrupt end for the Mauston baseball team.
After finishing the regular season with a strong 15-7 record and earning a No. 1 seed in the WIAA Division 2 regional playoffs, the Golden Eagles suffered a stunning 4-1 upset to the fifth-seeded Nekoosa Papermakers May 30 at Mauston High School.
The Golden Eagles certainly had opportunities to score throughout the game, but failed to capitalize, stranding 11 runners on base. Mauston outhit the upstart Papermakers 10-6, but couldn’t string together timely hits.
Mauston had a glimmer of hope when it tried to rally in the bottom of the seventh inning. Dakota Barnier scored on a sac fly from Jared Lenze to trim Nekoosa’s lead to 4-1. Riley Luehman advanced to second on the sacrifice, setting the stage for the final out. After a long battle with relief pitcher Derek Bills, Mitchell Burch hit a chopper to third and Luehman tried to score from second, but was caught in a rundown and tagged out by Nekoosa catcher Kyle Olson to end Mauston’s season.
“That was on me, that was not Riley’s fault,” said MHS coach Chris Lavold who waved Luehman home from his third-base coaching box. “That was just me being overzealous. I was conservative on the guy before that; I don’t know why I wasn’t more conservative there, but that was all on me.”
The Papermakers, just 6-17, celebrated wildly on their rival’s home field, while the Golden Eagles were left to ponder what went wrong. Lavold, with tear-filled eyes, said it was difficult to comprehend their season was finished.
“We had the bases loaded twice and couldn’t string together that final key hit we needed,” Lavold said. “Nekoosa got off to a one-run lead on an unearned run on just a little blooper. You looked at the scoreboard and it was eight hits for us and two for them but they were up 1-0 and it was like, oh no, it’s going to be one of those nights.”
Nekoosa starter Kade Lancour pitched out of jams, tossing six shutout innings. Lancour finished with five strikeouts and allowed two walks and eight hits. Papermakers coach Bob Atkinson was hoping to see Lancour finish a complete game shutout, but he had reached the 100-pitch count and, per WIAA rules, had to be removed. Bills pitched the seventh and despite allowing one run, held off Mauston to secure the win.
“Kade threw a heck of a game tonight for us,” Atkinson said. “Derek Bills, prior to this year, hadn’t played since he was 12 years old, but he pitches in relief for us and came in tonight and threw strikes and we made some plays.”
The postseason upset was especially sweet for Nekoosa after falling to Mauston twice during the regular season, 12-0 and 9-0. Despite their struggles, Lavold felt the Papermakers were a team on the rise after knocking off Wisconsin Dells in a regional playoff opener May 25.
“These kids deserve it, I have to tip my hat off to them,” Atkinson said. “We’re starting three freshmen, two sophomores and three juniors so we’re really young. I told them we’re going to battle through the early part of the season and when we get to the playoffs we’re 0-0. If you start making plays and believe in yourself, you can go a long ways.”
Burch suffered the loss, completing 5 1/3 innings with five strikeouts and one walk while allowing five hits and two earned runs. Lenze relieved Burch in the sixth, striking out three and allowing one hit through 1 2/3 innings. At the plate, Barnier finished 3-for-4, while Tarren Hall and Mitchell Gray each had two hits. Mauston had no extra-base hits.
While several players wiped away tears as they walked off the field, Lavold said they have plenty to be proud of. The Golden Eagles earned a share of the conference title with Westfield and went 50-31 the past three seasons.
“I loved coaching these seniors and this whole team,” Lavold said. “We will always have our South Central Conference championship, but we would have loved to have another shot at the regional championship, especially after we had earned home field advantage, but that’s baseball. And Nekoosa is a completely different team from the one we saw earlier in the season.”