Baseball: Third time's the charm for Ellsworth
The Ellsworth baseball team's seniors have grown familiar with facing Prescott in the playoffs over the course of their high school careers.
In 2015, as freshmen, four-year varsity players Ryan McGregor and Drake Flom were dealt a crushing 13-inning, 7-5 loss from the Cardinals and then freshman shortstop Peter Brookshaw.
McGregor and Flom, along with fellow seniors Shane Elsen and Owen Matzek, tried their playoff luck against Jeff Ryan's Cardinals in the 2017 WIAA Division 2 regional finals but were served another season-ending defeat to the rival team they had beat twice during the 2017 regular season.
The four seniors and their teammates held onto these memories and those of early May 2018 when they returned to Firehall Field on Friday, June 1 for the Prescott (14-7) vs. Ellsworth (14-6) regional final game they'll remember more fondly than those of the past.
This time, the Panthers left the rivalry regional game as the team storming the field with hardware in-hand as their foes in red and white tried to keep their heads from hanging low as they watched their conference opponents celebrate on their own field.
"Any time you win a regional championship, it's obviously a tremendous feeling," Ellsworth's head coach Ryan Christenson said. "When you're playing a high-intense game against a tremendous program with high-character coaches, players and community members, it just adds to it."
Friday night's 5-3 game came down to the seventh inning when the Panthers scored their two winning runs on a single from Owen Matzek who had been plotting his team's revenge against the Cardinals for some time.
On May 10, Owen Matzek gave up the go-ahead run to Prescott on a game-winning hit by Cameron Aslaskanson after coming in to relieve Flom.
"I wasn't going to let that happen again," Owen Matzek said. "That was the worst feeling ever."
Ellsworth took a 3-0 lead in the third inning of the regional final game after McGregor hit a three-run double, but Prescott answered back with a three-run fourth inning that was produced by a Payton Brownell RBI and a two-run single to center field from Noah Matzek.
But this time, Owen Matzek and his Panthers refused to be the team slumping their shoulders with regrets at the end of the game.
Owen Matzek took the plate in the seventh facing loaded bases thanks to Prescott intentionally walking McGregor before Matzek's at bat.
"I was kind of mad because they walked Ryan and loaded the bases before me," Owen Matzek said. "But then I showed them what I had."
Not only did Matzek bring in the winning runs, but the senior also forced Prescott's final three groundouts of the game to secure his team's regional final victory.
"This kid definitely didn't forget about the last game," Flom said. "That's what we love about Owen. He's going to come and throw his best."
The senior closer relieved McGregor who pitched six of the game's innings and three earned runs on seven hits while claiming three strikeouts.
Senior Andrew Rozmiarek started at the mound for the Cardinals and allowed three earned runs on eight hits. Brookshaw took the rubber in the seventh and gave up two earned runs on three hits.
Flom, Elsen, Owen Matzek and Cole Woodland all produced two hits for Ellsworth in the Panthers' 11-hit performance that will not soon be forgotten.
"To beat them here, this means a lot to us," Flom said after recalling his freshman-year, 13-inning loss, which he described as a "heartbreaker."
But after the Friday, the Cardinals are now the team that will have to deal with their playoff heartache.
"I would just say, we are going to miss being with all of our teammates every day," Brookshaw said after his final high school game.
"It's going to be very weird never playing a high school sport again," Brownell added.
Prescott was outhit 11-7 in its final game of the season and led at the plate by Brookshaw and Dylan Malmlov who both had two hits.
While the bats weren't hot for Prescott, the Cardinals were forced to rely on their defense, which was highlighted by two impressive cannon throws from Jonah Anderson and Hunter Daymond in the outfield that allowed Roosen to tag out two Ellsworth runners at home plate.
However, Prescott's improved defense wasn't enough to outlast the Panthers in the playoffs for the first time in seven Cardinal seniors' — Brookshaw, Brownell, Corey Kirschbaum, Roosen, Rozmiarek, Derek Rundquist and Cameron Smith — high school careers.
"Graduation happens every year and it sucks," Ryan said to his team after its 5-3 loss. "It sucks to lose guys who have played and been a part of the program for as long as you guys have."
Ryan acknowledged the high expectations for Prescott baseball teams to carry out long playoff runs, but told his team that its short 2018 playoff run will not be considered a stain on the Cardinals' baseball program.
"Don't ever think for a second that the Prescott baseball tradition took a dip with this team," Ryan said. "Don't let anyone tell you that.
"I always consider myself very, very fortunate to be the head coach of the Prescott baseball team," Ryan said. "You guys have afforded me that opportunity."
Ryan made sure to not only send his seniors out with a "thank you" but to also give credit where credit was due.
"You need to give your opponents credit when you get beat," Ryan told his Prescott players after their 5-3 loss. "There are a lot of coaches who won't do that. (Ellsworth) got the big hits, we did not. You have to give them credit, but doesn't take the pain off of losing."
And like after every Highway 10 matchup, Ellsworth's head coach Ryan Christenson also directed high praise Prescott's way.
"All those (Prescott) seniors are just amazing kids," Christenson said.
Christenson told the Herald Roosen approached him right after his high school baseball season ended and wished the Panthers good luck in the remainder of their season.
"He told us to bring the trophy back from Appleton, and that just shows what a high-character guy he is. It's been a treat getting to watch him play football, basketball and baseball."
And of course, Christenson had to compliment the last Brookshaw one final time.
"I've been coaching Ellsworth for 12 years and I believe 10 of those 12 years there was a Brookshaw in the lineup," Christenson said. "It'll be really weird to not see a Brookshaw at shortstop next year. Peter is a tremendous player and has a bright future ahead of him.
"My heart goes out to those seniors, because our seniors were in that position last year."
This year, Christenson and his victorious Panthers will be heading to Viroqua on Tuesday, June 5 where they'll face Hayward at 11 a.m. in the sectional semifinals.
"The boys will be ready," Christenson said. "They've been swinging the bats well and playing good defense, and we just have to keep at it and trust the process and good things will happen.
"Our entire 1-9 is battling with every pitch and that's tough on opposing defenses. The more we do those things, I think we just grow more confident in our own skin. Every little bit adds up, and we've seen that progress throughout the year."
Owen Matzek's closing words: "We're just getting started."