WAUNAKEE — After bowing out in the WIAA Division 1 state tournament quarterfinals a year ago, the Waunakee baseball team was determined to make a return trip.
The Warriors slugged their way to two five-inning victories at last Tuesday’s Middleton sectional — defeating Holmen 13-2 in the semifinal and DeForest 12-1 in the title game. In the process, the Warriors accomplished a program first, reaching the state tournament in back-to-back years.
Waunakee (18-6) has spent a week’s time eagerly awaiting its Division 1 quarterfinal game against Eau Claire North (21-3). The Warriors don’t mind being part of the Breakfast Club game at 8 a.m. today at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute.
“It’s just like getting up for school, but better because we get to play baseball,” said senior shortstop Jarrett Fueger, who hammered a two-run homer and drove in four runs against DeForest.
Added Waunakee coach Spencer Lee: “They would play at midnight, or at 2 in the morning if they had to. They are excited to have this opportunity and they’d go play anywhere, anytime.”
The Warriors would like to advance further this time, after dropping an 11-2 quarterfinal decision to eventual champion Kimberly last year.
“Last year, we were glad to be there,” said senior Riley Ripp, a first baseman and pitcher who was the Badger North Conference Co-Player of the Year with Beaver Dam’s Dillon Livingston. “I want to win.”
Lee has known and coached many of the nine seniors — including his son, second baseman Derek Lee — starting with their T-ball days. Six of the seniors have been on varsity since their freshman or sophomore years, Spencer Lee said.
“You go up there with the goal to win and play baseball, but you also want to enjoy it and take it all in because for most of us and for the seniors, it’s the last time we might see each other and be together as a team,” said Fueger, who’s driven in 24 runs in the Warriors’ 24 games this season.
Junior catcher Nate Stevens, after hitting three homers and driving in 10 runs in the two sectional games, is hitting a team-best .527 with team-leading totals of eight homers and 37 RBIs. The home run and RBI figures have tied single-season school records, Spencer Lee said.
Arkansas recruit Stevens, Fueger, Derek Lee and Ripp serve as captains for Waunakee, which shared the Badger North crown with Beaver Dam.
“Our junior varsity was 21-2 last year and we really felt like we were going to add some quality pieces to what we had coming back,” Spencer Lee said. “We felt like the possibility of being conference champion again existed and making another state run was something we could do. That was something that really motivated them. They wanted to get back again.
“They are determined to stick around longer than we did last year. That has been a driving force for them since June when we lost.”
The Warriors believe their season turned after consecutive, lopsided non-conference losses to Hartland Arrowhead and Janesville Craig early in the year.
“It sort of opened our eyes to where we needed to get, so we could beat those teams,” said Derek Lee, a Madison Area Technical College commit who’s hitting .360 and, with Stevens, leads the teams in runs scored (25). “We know we have to play to our very best ability every game.”
Fueger, whose brother Ryne Fueger is a junior on the team, hopes to play baseball after high school. Jarrett Fueger said he is undecided on his future after committing to St. Louis University before asking for his release and then considering UW-Whitewater.
Fueger said after being content to reach state last year, the Warriors know what they “have to do to take care of business” starting this morning against Big Rivers Conference champion Eau Claire North.
“I feel better about this year because we know what happens when you get there — the process and how quick you have to go through things because there are so many games,” Derek Lee said. “I just think we are hot at the right time.”
The Warriors are brimming with confidence after their torrid hitting complemented strong pitching performances by senior Ben Nordloh and Ripp at the sectional.
“If we show up and play our best, we are going to have a chance,” Spencer Lee said. “They believe in each other and when you have that, anything can happen. State tournaments can be unforgiving, but this group believes they can go there and make some noise. It’s fun to be part of that with them.”
Ripp, who’s hitting .371 and has a 5-1 record with a 1.11 ERA, finishes his prep career at the state tournament after playing center for Waunakee’s Division 2 state championship football team last fall.
“It’s been a pretty special year,” Ripp said. “I just want to keep it going.”