The odds were stacked against the Spring Valley Cardinals at the beginning of the 2019 baseball season. With a new coach and few upperclassmen, those outside of the program were ready to witness a "rebuilding" year with plenty of learning lessons attached to losses.
But Spring Valley junior Aaron Borgerding knew better than that.
"I was excited for the season, because I knew we had some young kids coming up who really could do some stuff," Borgerding said. "And working with Walczak during the years where he was an assistant coach, it really gave me the confidence that he knows what he's doing, he's been places, he knows how to get stuff done."
Against all odds, the Spring Valley Cardinals (17-4) won their first regional title since 2015 with first-year head coach Walczak, and even when their season came to a conclusion after Thorp's (10-13) Ryan Stunkel hit a 2-run, walk-off home run to claim a 7-6 WIAA Division 4 sectional semifinal win over Spring Valley on Tuesday, June 4, Borgerding committed to trusting in the potential of his team to get over the heartbreaking loss.
"As young as we are, honestly it's a good thing to have that happen now," Borgerding said after Stunkel's walk-off home run. "It's a good and bad thing because obviously it stings, but it's a good thing to build on going forward."
Spring Valley held a 6-5 lead prior to the bottom of the seventh inning but allowed Thorp's Isaac Soumis to take a base after a dropped third strike prior to Stunkel's winning hit. Spring Valley's disappointment was noticeable, but it was overcome by the realization of what could still be in store for this young team.
The 2020 Cardinals will return every player on the 2019 roster aside from senior Santana Schlegel.
"I told the boys at the end that they need to see all of the mistakes that we made in this game and to realize that we should have won but that we also have a ton of work to do in the offseason to continue to get better," head coach Brandon Walczak said. "With as young as we are, it's kind of scary how much potential we have on the team and how good we could actually be. They just need to recognize that and get that fire burning to just continue to get better."
That shouldn't be a problem for the young Cardinals who Walczak said entered into their sectional semifinal game with undoubtable confidence.
"I think they knew (how big this game was), but I think they were feeling really confident," Walczak said. "That's what I'm most proud of. These guys didn't come in here thinking 'Oh, they're seniors, they're going to walk all over us'. They took it by the horns and just said 'Let's go, we're ready.'"
Spring Valley marched to a 6-0 lead in the top of the second inning after taking advantage of three Thorp errors and earning singles from Carter Deppa, Mike Bauer and Connor Ducklow but saw the tables turn in the bottom of the third when the opposing Cardinals scored four runs on four passed balls and an RBI single from Charlie Hauser.
But despite the challenging third inning, Walczak didn't believe the average age of his players was a factor in Tuesday's loss.
"A lot of our younger kids made great plays and hit the ball well," Walczak said. "I think as a whole we still played well, and we made plays that we had to."
Spring Valley committed two errors to Thorp's four and out-hit their opponents 8-3 with four of their eight hits coming from sophomore Carter Deppa who singled every time he stepped up to the plate.
Despite giving up Thorp's final hit, Mike Bauer was the first underclassman Borgerding brought up when asked how he's seen his teammates mature over the course of the season.
"We've had a lot of guys mature," Borgerding said. "Mike stepped up in some big spots. We put him in some pickles, and he stepped up mentally and physically - throwing strikes and being more of a vocal leader now. That's really big for us."
Borgerding pitched the first 2 ⅓ innings of Spring Valley's loss to Thorp but was relieved by Bauer after giving up five runs in the game-changing third inning. Bauer collected five strikeouts in his four innings on the mound and was one pitch away from earning his team's save. When the save didn't come, Borgerding was the first player to meet Bauer on the mound with a consoling arm around his shoulder and with, assumingly, a similar sentiment he shared with the Herald after the game.
"We got here this year," Borgerding said, "and honestly, we could go pretty far next year."
Thorp was defeated 14-0 by Webster (28-0) in the following WIAA Division 4 Sectional 1 championship game.