By Greg Bates
ACN & Times-Press correspondent
OSHKOSH – When a little popup went into the air and second baseman Jackie Korth squeezed her glove tightly around the ball, the celebration was on.
The Shiocton softball team had done it, advancing to the program’s first state tournament.
The Chiefs tallied six runs in the first two innings and then had to hold on to beat Lourdes Academy 6-4 in a WIAA Division 4 sectional final on Thursday, June 1, at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
This is the fifth year in a row Shiocton has captured 16 or more victories and has 20 or more in the last three seasons. But a state berth had always eluded those Chiefs teams.
Not this year.
“It still hasn’t hit me yet,” Shiocton pitcher Sydney Wilcox said. “I knew we could do it, but I can’t believe that it actually is here and we just did it.”
There were plenty of photo opportunities with the sectional champion trophy after the game in center field as the players reminisced about recording the final out.
“I was so happy,” first baseman Allison Erickson said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we did it.’ Nothing felt better than that.”
Said center fielder Erica Gassner: “It’s remarkable. It’s so amazing. It’s hard to comprehend right now.”
Shiocton will now take on Pacelli in the state semifinals on Friday morning, June 9, at 8 a.m. at Goodman Field on the University of Wisconsin campus. The Chiefs downed the Cardinals twice during the regular season, 7-3 on April 20 and 5-4 on May 11. With a win, Shiocton would advance to the Division 4 championship game on Saturday, June 10, at approximately 10:30 a. versus the winner of Phillips/Juda Albany semifinal.
Dave Wilcox is in his seventh year as the team’s coach and finally reaching state nearly had him choked up after the game. He remembers winning just one game in his first season and five the next year. After that, the tide turned.
“It’s somewhat surreal. You play through it, you think about it,” coach Wilcox said. “It’s so hard to do this. I can’t believe the Laconias of the world and some of these repeat attendees to the state tournament. Just in our little world in Shiocton and the very, very good teams that we’ve had where the matchups just didn’t really work out, you lose some 1-0 games. It just takes so much. It takes health. It takes some luck, it really does. This is a program win as much as it is a 2017 win.”
The previous three seasons in the postseason, Shiocton fell to Laconia twice by identical 1-0 scores and 2-0 to Weyauwega-Fremont in 2015. This year, the Chiefs got over the hump.
One big reason the team has flourished, the players point out, is because of strong chemistry and cohesion.
“I think we have a good bond,” Erickson said. “Every year everyone knows softball we get along great and there’s not really any drama on the team.”
Shiocton started the year out 2-6 but has rattled off 20 victories in the last 21 games. It will take an 11-game winning streak into the state semifinals.
“I think this year more than ever, we’ve always had such a great bond as a team, but this we knew what we had and we had freshmen and sophomores playing the entire time and for them to step up and do their jobs and for all of us to accept them,” Sydney Wilcox said. “Right from the start, even when we played bad in Florida, we clicked as a team. We were always there for each other. I’m like, this season’s going to end really well. I can just feel it.”
When Shiocton and Lourdes Academy squared off, it was a matchup that was destined to happen. Both were top seeds in their regional and state ranked, Shiocton No. 8 and Lourdes Academy No. 4 in the latest Wisconsin Fast Pitch Softball Coaches Association/WisSports.net Coaches Poll.
Shiocton (22-7) waste little time jumping on Lourdes Academy (21-3) in the top of the first. With two outs, Wilcox doubled, Tina Ubl was hit by a pitch and Gabby Gunderson walked to load the bases. With a 3-1 count, Erickson got a pitch in her wheelhouse and laced it to left-center field for a bases-clearing double as Shiocton went up 3-0.
“I’ve been struggling with strikeouts, like at the beginning of the season, and I’m just kind of getting back in my groove,” Erickson said. “I was like, ‘Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up.’ Then I put the bat on the ball and it felt good. I was just hoping nobody would catch it.”
In the second inning, Gassner led off with a bang, hitting a home run that just cleared the left-field fence. It was the first homer of the sophomore’s career.
“I was rounding first and I almost started crying because everybody got up and started cheering,” Gassner said. “I rounded second and everybody was at home plate. I was bawling my eyes out by the time I got to third base.”
Kellyn Van Straten followed with a single and advanced to third on a Leigha Young single. Young was cut down trying to reach second base. Korth hit a deep enough fly ball to center to allow Van Straten to score standing up to make it 5-0. Wilcox worked a two-out walk and came all the way around to score on a throwing error that also allowed Ubl to get to second.
Shiocton – which had just five hits in the game — had two big hits from two unlikely heroes, Erickson and Gassner.
“If you think about to Allison and Erica’s hits, they were both just nice swings,” coach Wilcox said. “They did not swing all that hard and the ball was jump off the bats tonight. Allison’s not known and neither is Erica for their big power. But it just goes to show you that it’s the bat that does the work, not the muscles in the arms as much.”
Holding a six-run advantage was huge for Shiocton. However, it could have made the players ease up a little. The Chiefs had just two baserunners in their final four innings.
Wilcox was cruising along in the circle before running into some issues in the fifth. Sophia Laib led off with a single and Chloe Evans – who led the state in hits (63) this season as a freshman – stroked a double. Pitcher Lauren Schiek hit a two-run single to get Lourdes Academy on the board. Mollie Bartlett collected a single and Ciarra Zemke had a base hit to plate Schiek. A wild pitch moved up both runners to second and third with no. Kristin Wetterau had a sacrifice fly to bring in Bartlett. Wilcox than stranded the runner at second by striking out the final two hitters of the inning.
Shiocton had a rough inning, but weathered the storm.
“It was scary because I was just waiting for it,” Sydney Wilcox said. “It wasn’t scary the fact they got hits, but you can just tell because hitting is so contagious. The second they got their mojo going and they got everyone else going, it was scary. But I’m like, OK, we also have the lead. We have the lead, so we just need to do our job and then we should be fine.”
Getting out of a second and third no out jam was an important point in the game for Wilcox.
“That was really big,” Sydney Wilcox said. “When there’s damage done, you’ve just got to remember to minimize the damage. There’s always going to be a little damage, but the more you can keep that to a minimum the better off you’re going to be.”
Lourdes Academy, which left seven runners on base, brought the heart of its order up in the seventh inning. Wilcox was ready to face the Nos. 2, 3, 4 hitters, who were looking to tie or win the game.
“I was nervous, but I was also like, ‘You know what, the first time through the order I got them all out. I’ve just got to do my job and let my team do the job behind me and we can take care of business,’” Sydney Wilcox said. “And that’s what happened.”
Wilcox retired the first two batters and Zemke walked to bring the tying run to the plate. Wilcox got Wetterau to hit a little flair in the infield that was caught by Korth.
Wilcox, the team’s lone senior, finished with 12 strikeouts in the game to run her season to 236 strikeouts in 149 2/3 innings. She gave up seven hits.
With Shiocton just two wins shy of winning a state title, the players have to stay focused on the task at hand.
“We need to remember this is just another game,” Sydney Wilcox said. “That’s what we thought about this game. It’s just another game we have to win. The more we psych ourselves out, the more nervous we’re going to be. When we think it’s just a game and everyone does their job on the field, in the batter’s box and piece everything together and we should be good.”