By RICK SOLEM
GRAND CHUTE, Wis. – The game was in hand. A state championship was in sight.
And then it all slipped away.
Westby High School’s baseball team fell 4-3 to Oconto in the WIAA Division 3 state championship Thursday at Fox Cities Stadium.
The Norsemen (21-5) had a 3-1 lead heading into the bottom of the fifth inning and everything seemed in hand.
A strikeout and a line out and Westby was almost out of the inning before disaster struck.
Grant Frazer singled to shortstop for Oconto (16-4). Trent Mehlberg came up next and singled to center field.
Frazer rounded third and headed home, while Oconto coach Brian Sohrweide told Mehlberg to head for second, forcing Westby to make a decision – get Frazer at home or Mehlberg at second.
All Sohrweide was hoping was that Mehlberg would get into a rundown long enough for Frazer to score and cut the deficit to one heading into the sixth.
Instead, Westby went home with the throw. Catcher Nick Neely couldn’t handle second baseman Tyler Ihrcke’s throw. Frazer scored and Mehlberg settled in at third.
Kyle Krueger followed, tying the game with a single to center.
Teague Camps singled on the next at bat, putting runners on first and second, and Blake Campshure capped off the rally with an RBI single to the perfect spot in right field for the lead.
It was one error. Westby’s only error and it cost it, not just three runs, but a state championship.
Oconto, on the other hand, had eight errors, including two in the first inning. Those errors helped Westby score once and get the bases loaded with just one out. But a double play ended what looked to be the perfect way to start out a state championship.
Westby scored all three of its runs in the third inning with the help of four errors.
After Oconto took the lead in the bottom of the fifth, Westby managed just one baserunner, who reached on error in the seventh with one out.
And like the first inning, when Westby could have gotten out to a big start but saw its chance end with a double play, Oconto ended the game and Westby’s chance to tie, with a double play.
This was Westby’s first trip to state since 1997. That year, they were also the runners up.
The fifth inning proved disastrous for the Norsemen in the state championship, but it was a similar scenario that propelled them there with a 2-1 win over Deerfield on Wednesday.
In the semifinal, tied 1-1 with Deerfield (18-5), Alex Robson singled to left and Alex Bluske followed with a single through the left side. Ihrcke came up next and reached on a sacrifice bunt. The throw was in time to get Ihrcke out, but second baseman Blake Ehrke didn’t get his foot down for the out.
That proved the difference as Neely came up next and hit the go-ahead sacrifice fly to score Robson. Had Ihrcke been out, that fly would have ended the inning.
Things could have ended up a lot different, however, had Westby not miraculously gotten out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the top of the fourth inning.
Westby can thank Alex Midtlien for getting them out of that relatively unscathed. Loaded, one out, the third baseman fielded a well hit ground ball and fired home for the out. Deerfield ended up getting just one run in the inning and left the bases loaded to end the inning.
Ihrcke got the final out on a pop up to first base. He gave up four hits in the inning and four hits the rest of the game, finishing with five strikeouts and one walk.
Westby tied the game back up in the bottom half of the inning thanks to some small ball and a Deerfield error.
Neely started the inning with a walk and was sacrificed to second by Jared Anderson. Midlien struck out swinging, before Zach Dwyer reached on error. Schroeder came up next and hit an RBI single to center.