Luke Hansel remembers looking into the stands and seeing just a scattering of fans looking on earlier in his high school career. Even during key showdowns, the Union Grove baseball team pretty much had to create its own energy, because they weren’t going to get much support.
And then came this year, when the Broncos turned a 2-2 start into a 26-3 record and a share of the Southern Lakes Conference championship. And when they earned a berth to their first state championship since 1952.
“We never really got many people coming to games,” Hansel said. “This year, you can just tell when we started winning games. The culture here is just amazing. The whole community has just wrapped around us and supported us.”
And now a team that was just 9-16 two years ago is two victories away from a WIAA Division 1 state championship, which would be the first in the program’s history. The Broncos will start that quest at 8 p.m. Wednesday when it plays McFarland (20-9) in a semifinal at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute.
West De Pere (27-2), which lost its two games by one run, appears to be the team to beat in the Division 2 field. But with two dominating pitchers, a .332 team batting average and an air-tight defense, Union Grove has every reason to believe it can bring home a state championship trophy.
“It’s been our mindset since the beginning of the season that we go into every game thinking we’re going to win,” Hansel said. “I think having the mentality that all our offseason work is going to pay off has helped because a lot of us put in a lot of work during the winter.”
It starts with Hansel and Zimmermann, who have been twin aces for the Broncos.
Hansel was the established starter going into this season, earning first-team All-Racine County honors as a pitcher last season. He took another step as a senior, going 7-0 with with a 1.02 earned run average. In 48 innings, he has struck out 56 and walked just 12.
The surprise has been Zimmermann, who was more of a reliever for the Broncos as a junior. Refining his mechanics under the tutelage of pitching coaches Ben Miller and R.J. Spang, Zimmermann has gone 8-0 with a 0.55 ERA.
He’s not as overpowering as Hansel, but he has relied on pinpoint control to succeed. In 50⅔ innings, he has struck out 36 and walked 12.
Who will get the start Wednesday night against McFarland? Union Grove coach Nate Meyer isn’t saying.
“We can’t go wrong whether we pick Luke or Jake to start the first game,” Meyer said. “Both of those guys are very capable of coming out and beating any of those teams out there.”
The Broncos have plenty of firepower to back those pitchers.
Junior shortstop TJ Manteufel, a Bradley University recruit, is hitting .382 with seven homers and 37 RBIs. Designated hitter Michael Jocius is hitting a team-best .433 with 17 RBIs.
Other standouts include Hansel (.418, 11 doubles, 39 RBIs), second baseman Nick Williams (.403, 35 runs, 21 RBIs), center fielder Owen Erickson (.345, 22 RBIs, 42 runs) and Jack Clark (.282, 20 RBIs).
What might not be as known as that offense is the Broncos’ fielding prowess. In four postseason games so far, Union Grove has committed just one error.
“Knowing we’re not going to give up a lot of runs with the defense we have, we can really focus on every at-bat,” Hansel said. “As a pitcher, you know that with that defense, ground balls are going to get eaten up. It really helps with throwing your pitches with confidence.”
McFarland will present an intriguing challenge Wednesday night. While the Spartans’ 20-9 record isn’t overly imposing, they are entering the state tournament with a 10-game winning streak, which came on the heels of a five-game losing streak.
From a statistical standpoint, McFarland doesn’t appear to have a pitcher on the level of Hansel or Zimmermann, but there is still quality. The ace in terms of workload is junior right-hander J.T. Pimental, whose 50⅓ innings pitched this season is 23 more than anyone else on the staff.
He is 4-1 with a 2.38 ERA. But he only has 23 strikeouts and had walked 30.
Other leaders on McFarland’s staff are Jeremiah Price-Johnson (5-1, 2.07 ERA) and Cam Schaaf (3-0, 4.23 ERA).
Leading the Spartans offense are Reece Samuel (.444, three homers, 23 RBIs) and Austin Miller (.391, 27 RBIs).
“I know they’re on a 10- or 11-game winning streak and they beat a very good Elkhorn team from our conference (7-4 in the sectional semifinal),” Meyer said. “It seems like they’ve been playing really good and, from what I saw, the defense has been outstanding for them lately.”
The other semifinal features West De Pere (27-2) and Antigo (19-5). The winner of the Union Grove-McFarland semifinal will play the winner of that game for the Division 2 championship at 3 p.m. Thursday.
West De Pere, which won the Division 2 state championship in 2008, looks particularly imposing. The Phantoms’ two losses have been 8-7 and 3-2 and they bring an 18-game winning streak into the state tournament.
Their pitching staff is led by left-handers Connor Landgreder (8-0, 0.47) and Benjamin Hampton (9-1, 1.10 ERA). Hampton, a senior, has committed to West Virginia and Landgreder, a junior, has committed to Northern Illinois.
Further depth comes from right-handers Tyler Rukamp (4-1, 1.50) and Braydon Skenandore (4-0, 0.41 ERA).
The bottom line is it’s an imposing Division 2 field. But the Broncos have the right to feel they have just as much of a chance as any other team.
Hansel believes he and Zimmermann will be there for their teammates, no matter which opponent the Broncos face.
“We’re both ready,” Hansel said. “It’s nice to know we don’t have to play that extra game (the Division 1 field features a quarterfinal round). We would like to be in D-1 (where the Broncos were prior to this season) because we still think we can compete in D-1, but it’s nice only playing two games because everyone knows who’s going to be on the bump for both of those games.”