SPOONER, Wis. -- Corona-champs.
That’s the phrase the River Falls Fighting Fish players came up with to describe the Wisconsin Baseball Association state championship they won Sunday, Aug. 16, in Spooner.
It’s not meant to be funny. But in a summer that saw over half the season wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fish and the 11 other state tournament participants in Hayward and Spooner last weekend were just grateful to be there.
“We were talking about that,” Fish player-manager Josh Eidem said. “If everything goes according to plan this should be the only coronavirus state championship. Let’s get this thing kicked by next summer.”
Amateur baseball was shut down across the state for all of April and May, and most of June, due to the coronavirus pandemic before communities began randomly lifting their local restrictions. By the time St. Croix Valley Baseball League teams all got on the same page there was time for a nine-game, monthlong abbreviated season to try and qualify for a modified WBA end-of-season state tournament.
The Fish responded by going 8-1 to win the regular season SCVBL championship and taking first place in the league tournament before winning four games in two days last weekend up north, including defeating the Brill Millers 7-3 Sunday, to claim their first state title since 2011 and second in franchise history.
Throughout it all, Eidem said he told his team not to worry about things that were happening off the field.
“We told these guys a lot, when things got tough during the tournament, don’t focus on things out there because we have everything we need right in here, in the dugout,” he said. “Because the chemistry on this team was unbelievable. It was unlike anything I’ve experienced for a long time. When you get a team at the end of the year that is playing for each other, and not for themselves, that’s the secret.”
What’s not a secret is that it also takes good hitting and strong pitching to win a state championship. And the Fish got both over the weekend. In Saturday’s pool play they defeated the Eau Claire Bears 5-3, behind seven strong innings from Jake Lindsay and a go-ahead RBI single by Brian Giebel, before Kyle Fritz pitched eight-plus innings and draftee Cody Urban shut the door in a 4-2 victory over the Everest Merchants.
Sunday in the state semifinals, Weston Lombard allowed just two unearned runs in eight innings and the Fish scored 12 unanswered runs to 10-run rule the Hayward Hawks, 12-2. That set up a state title match against Brill, where Ty Denzer delivered Eidem with a go-ahead sacrifice fly in the bottom of the sixth and River Falls scored four more runs in the seventh to claim the state championship with a 7-3 win.
Lindsay threw the first three innings in the title game to give him 10 innings pitched for the weekend while Urban and fellow draftee James Palmer worked three innings apiece with Urban picking up the win.
Each team in the state tournament was allowed to draft two players from a non-qualifying team in their league, and Eidem had high praise for the two pitchers the Fish picked up from Menomonie.
“James and Cody? Just unbelievable,” Eidem said. “Absolute ice water. You get picked up by a group of guys you haven’t been around all year, and then you just come out and you throw strikes in pressure situations. Between James closing out that first one against Eau Claire, and then Cody coming out in a state championship and pretty much dominating for three innings. It was amazing, and they’re really nice guys as well so they fit right in.”
For 25-year town ball veteran Joel Schaffer, Sunday’s state title win was extra special. After winning three WBA state championships nine years apart -- 2002 with the Hudson River Rats and 2011 and 2020 with the Fighting Fish -- he’s decided to hang up his spikes. And he wore his emotions on his sleeve as he hoisted the state championship trophy surrounded by his teammates Sunday afternoon.
“It’s been a big part of my life, starting in Little League when I was 9,” he said. “I’m 44 now. Not many people get to play 35 seasons of baseball but I’ve truly been blessed. I’ve got an amazing family that supported me all these years, and an amazing wife that let me play as long as I have. Now it’s just time.”
Eidem, Schaffer, Trevor Gutting and Giebel, who was named the state tournament’s Offensive MVP, are the only remaining Fighting Fish players from their 2011 state championship team. Eidem said seeing the younger players celebrating their first state title Sunday afternoon was something special.
“I told these guys out here that I’m sure they’re tired of us talking about 2011. That was a long time ago,” he said. “But I told them if the ball doesn’t bounce your way in the next 10 years, keep talking about 2020. Because it seems silly, but to have things to dream about during the season makes a difference -- to have something to play for that you feel you can reach. So now these guys will be the bridge to that next one. And that feels good. It feels like we’re passing something on.”
“They’re ballplayers man,” Schaffer added. “They have fun playing baseball. They enjoy it, they play hard, and they play baseball the right way. There’s not a better new generation to pass it onto than what we’ve got right here.”