By Greg Bates
Times-Press sports correspondent
It’s a loss that still lingers with the Seymour players and coaches.
The pieces were in place for a deep postseason push. The Thunder had a great opportunity to make a run at its first state appearance in the softball program’s history.
But one team was standing in Seymour’s way: Shawano. The Hawks handed the Thunder three of its four losses last year, including a season-ending defeat in a WIAA Division 2 regional final.
With all but two players back from last year’s team and the addition of a key component, Seymour is playing even better this season.
“Before the season, we had read a little tidbit that (Shawano was) going to come for us because they beat us three times last year including that regional playoff,” Seymour coach Karri Vanden Langenberg said. “That was our motivation to come back to them and beat them, and we 10-runned them in both games. These girls are ready; they’re hungry and they want it.”
That hiccup in the playoffs last season has given the Seymour players the push they need to make this a memorable season.
“We always want to go farther each and every year and this being my last year and four other girls’ last year,” senior shortstop Raven Vanden Langenberg said. “We want one really big push because this is our last chance to even make it to sectionals or further on. It’s a huge motivator right there.”
Seymour is off to a 17-3 start and have won its last 14 games in a row. The Thunder, which are ranked No. 6 in the latest Division 2 state poll by WFSCA/WisSports.net, have yet to lose in Wisconsin this year. Its three losses came in Florida at the beginning of the season.
“Things are really clicking,” Coach Vanden Langenberg said. “These girls have worked really, really hard. This is something this senior group with their leadership on this team, they’ve pushed the younger players. When we got back from Florida, we were all excited to play and then we got dumped on with snow. In the gym, these girls pushed the younger kids to keep practicing, keep hitting, keep pitching, keep throwing, keep doing fundamentals. That’s all their focus and their target was. ‘We have to keep going; we have to keep pushing.’ And it’s paying off.”
The senior class – Vanden Langenberg, Joeley Bluma, Savannah Thielbar, Kendra Johnson and Deiondra Wussow – has been the backbone to this season’s success. It’s a group that has played together since they were seven years old, playing up on the 10U team because it didn’t have enough girls. It’s a group that knows how to win. In the last two seasons up to this point, Seymour has a 34-7 record.
Making it deep in the playoffs isn’t something the seniors talk about together They know what needs to be done.
“It’s always the white elephant in the room, but we try not to talk about it,” Raven Vanden Langenberg said.
The non-seniors on this year’s team know it’s important to do well for the seniors in their last hurrah.
“I’m not saying this is our last chance, but we have a good team and think this is our year,” junior pitcher Paige Weyer said. “It really pushes us to know this is the seniors’ last chance.”
Three of the five seniors were part of this year’s basketball team that was state-ranked and advanced all the way to the sectional semifinals. Vanden Langenberg, Bluma and Johnson all know what it takes to win. They are hoping the success on the basketball court translates to the softball diamond.
“I think that they understand the pressure and they don’t let it get to them,” Coach Vanden Langenberg said. “It’s just another game. Just like basketball, you go half by half, minute by minute. Here, you’re going inning by inning. And they can relay that to the kids, ‘Hey, we’re just playing another game. It’s just another game. Regardless if it’s playoffs or not, it’s just another game.”
The seniors have really come through in their final season. Vanden Langenberg, who will play next season at Division II St. Cloud State University, is hitting .565 with a team-leading 10 doubles to go with five home runs. Bluma and Vanden Langenberg are tops on the Thunder with 25 runs driven in. Thielbar has four home runs and 22 RBI, and Weyer has added 21 RBI.
Seymour – which graduate centerfielder Zoe Moehring and catcher Ashley Thomas last year – didn’t miss a beat stepping into this season. The Thunder had the fortune of adding catcher Chloe Evans, who transferred from Oshkosh Lourdes.
Last year as a freshman, Evans played phenomenally and was named All-Trailways North Conference player of the year.
“I think she has been an absolute spark to this team,” coach Vanden Langenberg said. “She is an unbelievable catcher that has some abilities that we haven’t had in the past. We’ve had really good catchers, but Chloe really stands out as a catcher for us.”
Evans stepped right into the leadoff spot and has been the ideal table setter for Seymour. She’s hitting a team-leading .672 with 45 runs scored in just 64 official at-bats. Evans also has a team-best six home run, eight triples and 20 stolen bases.
Evans, who helped lead Oshkosh Lourdes to a Division 4 sectional final last season, loved jumping into a great situation at Seymour where the team was playing at a high level.
“It was very reassuring to me,” Evans said. “I didn’t know all these girls all that well and see what they can do offense and defense really gave a lot of confidence in the team.”
Evans connected quickly with Weyer and the battery mates have been solid all season. The duo feels comfortable with each other and have great chemistry, and that makes all the difference.
“We trust each other 100 percent,” Weyer said. “I trust everything she calls. I couldn’t ask for a better catcher.”
Weyer, who has a 14-2 record, has been pitching well all season. During Seymour’s 14-game winning streak, the team has tallied nine shutouts. Weyer has thrown two perfect games.
“I’ve been mixing it up well,” Weyer said. “I think the hitters don’t really know what to expect and I think that’s really been what’s getting us to where we are right now.”
It eases Weyer’s mind knowing she has a great offense to rely on if she happens to give up a couple runs. In its last 14 games, Seymour has collected double-digit runs in 10 of those contests.
As a team, Seymour is averaging 10.4 runs per game and hitting .483. The Thunder have 81 extra-base hits, including 22 home runs.
“It’s a big thing to know we have the bats and we’re never done,” Weyer said. “I also have a great defense behind my back too, so I know if they hit it our defense is going to make the play.”
With the regular season winding down, Seymour is zooming in on capturing its first Bay Conference title outright since 2000. Last season, Seymour shared the title with New London.
The Thunder will have its chance at an outright championship this Thursday when it hosts one-loss West De Pere. Seymour downed the Phantoms 3-0 on April 30.
“That was one of our main goals this year not to share the title,” coach Vanden Langenberg said. “That’s the first and foremost goal for these girls.”
The playoffs get underway on May 22, and Seymour will find out the Division 2 postseason pairings this Wednesday. It will be a tough road to get to state in Madison.
“There’s some huge competition,” Coach Vanden Langenberg said. “We’ve got Marinette, we’ve got Denmark and we’ve got Freedom. Freedom doesn’t have a loss in conference yet either, and we know a lot about Payton Dorn. We’re keeping them in the back of our mind.”
If Seymour and Freedom advance to sectionals, the two teams could square off for the right to go to state. Freedom is ranked one spot above Seymour in the state rankings. The Irish’s lone loss this season is to West De Pere.
Coach Vanden Langenberg will have to get her players to not look ahead to the critical matchup. She has a simple approach that has been working thus far.
“One of our mottos as a team is ‘inning by inning,’” coach Vanden Langenberg said. “We talk a lot to our girls, ‘If you win the inning, you’re going to win the game. So, you have to take each inning by inning.’ I think that’s something they really, really try to strive for is we can’t look ahead to games that aren’t played yet. We have to play inning by inning.”
The Seymour seniors have realized they can’t look ahead to a team like Freedom or they will get tripped up once again.
“Just like basketball, you have to take it one game at a time,” Raven Vanden Langenberg said. “Basketball especially, I think we did start looking ahead towards Beaver Dam and West De Pere, and I think we did lose some focus there and I don’t want to make that same mistake this year. We know that (Freedom is) good. We know what they have but in order to get there we need to play inning by inning, game by game. When that game comes, we’ll hopefully be ready for them.”
By Greg Bates