After Eau Claire North defeated Chippewa Falls last Tuesday, May 21, to give the River Falls baseball team the Big Rivers Conference title outright, the Cats took their first step toward winning a regional championship by taking care of Ellsworth, 11-1, in a WIAA Division 2 regional quarterfinal game Thursday, May 23.
Eau Claire North ended up sweeping Chippewa Falls to leave them both 9-3 in BRC play, two games behind the 11-1 Wildcats, who earned their conference title since 2015 and just their second BRC title ever.
"We are no doubt very proud to win it outright," said Wildcat coach Ryan Bishop. "It was something we knew was possible, but a lot of things have to come together to win this league. Our guys earned it through hard work and consistent preparation day in and day out."
The Cats wrapped up the regular season by shutting out St. Paul Highland Park, 4-0, last Monday, May 20, before honoring their 10 seniors in a rain-shortened Senior Night game with Tartan Tuesday, May 21.
The game was rained out after three innings but Bishop said the Cats were still able to keep up the tradition of starting all the team's seniors in their final regular season home game. The players' parents were also on the field for the team breakdown to open the game.
"Regardless of the weather, what a fun night to celebrate our ten seniors and their parents," Bishop said. "Regardless of their role, they have been committed to the program and it's so rewarding to watch them proudly play the game they love."
Two nights later the top-seeded Wildcats found themselves trailing No. 8 Ellsworth, 1-0 heading into the bottom of the second inning of their regional quarterfinal before taking full control.
A lead-off double by Braden Mork, followed by three straight Panther errors, resulted in the Cats first run before Jaden Schwantz singled in a pair of runs and Michael Krueger followed with an RBI single to give the Cats a 4-1 lead.
They tacked on three more runs in the third when Jackson Cleveland led off the inning with a single and scored on a double by Jake Miller. Jaden Schwantz singled in Miller, and Schwantz scored following back-to-back base hits by Adam Feyereisen and Joe Stoffel.
Mork hit a two-run homer in the sixth before a double by Ragan Pinnow and a base hit by Miller gave the Cats the 10-run, mercy-rule victory.
Every Wildcat starter had at least one hit in the game while the Cat's No. 6 through No. 9 batters were 8-for-16 with four doubles and a home run.
"It was fun to see our entire line-up hit the ball around the park," Bishop said. "They made some adjustments and barreled a lot of balls as the game went on."
Stoffel, Mork and Charlie Griffin combined to strike out 11 Panthers and walk just one while allowing four hits and one unearned run.
"I thought our pitchers all had a nice outing leading up to this next week," Bishop said. "They're healthy and ready to go."
Four Wildcat pitchers teamed up for a two-hit shutout in the Cats' 4-0 win at Highland Park to start the week. Schwantz struck out seven and walked two without a hit in four innings on the mound before Griffin, Austin Mueller and Andrew Bevens each pitched an inning in relief.
"Jaden threw the ball very well for not pitching in a couple weeks," Bishop said about Schwantz. "He pounded the strike zone with a good mix of pitches and proved to be another tough option for us out of the bullpen in the playoffs."
The Cats managed just four hits of their own but were able to manufacture a pair of runs on suicide squeeze bunts by Cleveland and Alex Kelm. Schwantz also had an RBI single before scoring on the back end of a double steal with Mork taking second base in the fifth.
"We saw a good pitcher who made us work for our runs," Bishop said. "We executed two suicide squeeze bunts, which was great to see heading into the playoffs."
The Wildcats, now 15-4 overall, hosted fourth-seeded St. Croix Central in a regional semifinal Tuesday, May 28. The Panthers defeated No. 5 Altoona, 8-6, in their quarterfinal matchup. If the Cats beat St. Croix Central they will host either No. 2 New Richmond or No. 3 Menomonie in the regional final Wednesday, May 29.
Bishop said the Wildcats have done a good job up to this point of remaining focused, regardless of who the opponent is.
"They know that every inning matters, and come playoff time every pitch can be a game changer," he said. "Most importantly, they are playing with confidence right now as a result of the work and preparation they've put in. We're excited to see just how far that takes us."