L-Cats edge Phoenix, close out perfect conference championship run
A few years removed from his lengthy career as the Lake Mills baseball coach, Dan Bourassa remains one of the program’s biggest supporters.
“Congratulations, Dads,” Bourassa said after the L-Cats closed out a perfect conference season. “Winning the conference outright is fun. Winning it with a perfect record is extremely special.”
Lake Mills won the Capitol North for the first time since 2005 and capped a 10-0 campaign in league play with a 2-0 victory over Luther Prep on Friday at LPS.
“That’s a really good team (we beat),” Lake Mills baseball coach Justin Annen said. “They are second in the conference. That was right there, them fighting with us. We took care of (clinching) it on Tuesday, but it’s also a bit of bragging rights to go 10-0 and beat a good team like they are.”
The top two teams in the conference staged a classic playoff tune-up, with Lake Mills junior Riley Zirbel and Luther Prep junior Jackson Lindemann dueling through five scoreless innings before the L-Cats scored two in the sixth for the winning margin.
Batting as the home team on enemy turf because Campus Field was water-logged, Lake Mills (16-4) broke through with the top of the order.
Spencer Hans led off with a hard grounder in the hole at shortstop, then rounded first hard and advanced to second when the throw was off-line.
Nick Carpenter came up next and ripped a sharp single to left and Hunter Buechel hit a sacrifice fly to right to drive in Hans with the first run of the game.
Carpenter advanced to third on the play and L-Cats catcher Adam Mitchell bunted him in to make it a two-run game.
Zirbel did the rest, working around a two-out walk to Joel Schewe by striking out Lindemann looking to end it.
Lake Mills baseball coach Justin Annen was confident his 2 through 5 hitters would break through in the sixth and they didn’t disappoint.
“We’re at our top and our top has delivered all year,” Annen said. “Just get a guy on and we’re going to find a way. (Credit) Spence to have a great reaction. He knew the throw was away, just to take the (extra base was huge).
“Now, we don’t have to bunt or steal over. Now, we’re in a good spot.
Nick hit a rocket down the line to set it up, so I was trusting that Hunter would do the job, which he did.
“I thought it was a good time to get that two run lead. Adam had a lot of confidence throwing (the bat) out. It was a good time to get us that second run. That’s big in a tight game, especially how Riley was throwing.”
Zirbel has served in a reliever role this year, but Annen let him battle through some late game fatigue to finish the game just under the wire with 97 pitches.
“It says a lot (for us to finish 10-0),” Zirbel said. “Our team was on fire. At the plate, we struggled some games, but our defense backed us up pretty good. It’s good to know you don’t have to throw many strikes when you’ve got your defense behind you and they still back you up.”
Zirbel struck out nine and walked four. Leadoff hitter Malachi Roeseler had the only two hits of the game off him.
He helped his own cause by picking off two base runners. Even more helpful was Mitchell’s hose. He cut four Phoenix on stolen base attempts.
“Oh, that was wonderful,” Zirbel said. “That helped me out a lot, because I know they like to bunt a lot. They like to play a lot of small ball. Not having a guy at second base helps a lot. Just clear the bases, go back to the windup and you can throw harder out of the wind-up, so that helps more, too.”
“He had a great day behind the dish,” Annen said. “He had great pop times behind the dish. It eliminates that out of their arsenal, which was huge. That’s something they have always done well since I have been here, seeing them play in the past under (Luther Prep coach Pete Kiecker). It was a big factor in the game.”
Kiecker’s teams have been aggressive over the course of two decades. It’s rare to see them shut down to this degree, but it won’t change how they play.
“We picked a runner off early,” Kiecker said. “Of course, we got a couple picked off ourselves. We are who we are. If we just change because we run into something that’s going to stop us, we’re not going to get anywhere. We just didn’t put the ball in play enough.
(Zirbel) threw some good, hard stuff. That’s a good thing for us to see going into the playoffs.”
Lindemann had an efficient day for the Phoenix, working six innings on 78 pitches. He had no strikeouts or walks and allowed five hits. In addition to picking off a runner at first, he escaped the second inning with a big play from first baseman Noah Eggert.
Sam Giombetti hit a two-out double, but was later cut down at the plate attempting to score when JT Toepfer hit an infield single.
“Jackson battled really well on the mound,” Kiecker said. “He had some really good innings. He was who he was. He was pitching. He did a good job of pitching, mixing it up, throwing to different spots. I tell our guys, watch (Zach) Davies. If you can survive with that fastball…
“Even in the loss, I liked what I saw defensively by my team. Guys were out there trying to make plays at big times. We had two errors, but even those were on aggressive plays.”
Lake Mills nearly ended the program’s long conference championship drought last season, but lost a pair of one-run heartbreakers in a doubleheader at Columbus.
The L-Cats thumped the two-time conference champion Cardinals 8-2 and 8-0 in a rematch at Campus Field on May 7.
“It stung,” Carpenter said. “They have been our big conference rival since me, Chili and Spencer have been in high school. This year, it just brought more fuel to the fire and we just went out and did our business against them.
“It feels very good after being beat out by them the last couple of years. They are a really good team, but it feels to good to finally trump them and beat them pretty good, too.”
Since losing to defending Division 2 state champion Waupun 14-13 on April 5, the L-Cats have won 13 of their last 14.
“Our team chemistry this year has been better than any years that I have been in high school,” Carpenter said. “That translates directly into how we play. Everybody keeps it loose. It translates to us just pounding teams.”
“We’re all really close,” Zirbel added. “Outside of baseball even, we’re always hanging. That helps a lot. It’s like playing a pick-up game with all your buddies and having a lot of fun. That’s been our success is having fun out there.”
Lake Mills earned the top seed in its Division 2 regional and will host either Fort Atkinson or Elkhorn on Tuesday, May 28.
“We’re playing good baseball right now,” Annen said. “This is where you want to be … try to lean upwards. It’s a tough regional. Every game is going to be a battle, so this was a great game to play in. This is how playoff games are. They come down to one play and playing defense and executing offensively. I am proud of how we’ve been able to do that and I hope it continues.”
Luther Prep (12-5-1, 6-3) will attempt to host Waupun in a doubleheader today and look to finish a suspended game at Poynette on Monday. The Phoenix enter the Division 2 regional as the fifth seed and play at fourth-seeded New Berlin Eisenhower on Thursday at 4:45 p.m.
”I’ve seen a lot of good stuff out of our ball club,” Kiecker said. “It keeps getting better and they keep growing. You have to expect that when you are playing freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Our seniors are helping lead us, but the others are learning as they go.”
LAKE MILLS 2, LUTHER PREP 0
Luther Prep 000 000 0 — 0 2 2
Lake Mills 000 002 X — 2 6 0
Pitching (ip-er-h-bb-so) — LP (Lindemann 6-5-0-0-0), LM (Zirbel 7-2-0-4-9)
Leading hitters — Roeseler (LP) 2x3, Carpenter (LM) 2x3, Toepfer (LM) 2x2
2B — LM (Giombetti)