Start with a productive offense. Add in an effective pitching staff. And finish with the main ingredient—consistency.
Those components have the Cougars on the way to the school’s first state tournament appearance since 2001. Craig (21-5-1) plays Big Eight champion Middleton (17-6) in a WIAA Division 1 quarterfinal game at 1 p.m. Tuesday at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute. The teams split two games during the regular season.
Craig coach Vic Herbst said before the season that his team, on paper, had plenty of talent. The Cougars then went out and proved it on the field.
“We didn’t have any major slides all season, and that’s a sign of a good club,” Herbst said. “We lost back-to-back games only once all season and stayed focused between the lines.
“And by playing in a conference like ours gets you tournament-ready. There were no night’s off in our league. You had to be ready to play every game or you were going to get beat.”
In addition to Craig and Middleton, the Big Eight also has Sun Prairie in the eight-team Division 1 state field.
The Cougars started the season with four straight wins and were rolling along at 8-1 before dropping two straight conference games.
A pivotal three-game stretch early served as a springboard for the rest of the regular season. Craig beat Madison Memorial, Middleton and crosstown rival Janesville Parker in a span of four days as the confidence meter rose.
“We looked at that week as a test to see what we were made of,” Herbst said. “Middleton and Memorial were picked to finish first and second in the conference, and Parker is always a battle.
“By winning all three of those games, I think that kind of put us on the map. Teams knew that if they didn’t come to play against us, they were going to get beat.”
Although there aren’t any superstars in the lineup, the offense been has been scoring runs in bunches. The Cougars are averaging 7.1 runs a game with an on-base percentage of .400.
Leadoff hitter Zach Bayreuther is the catalyst. The senior and first-team all-conference selection is batting .409 and leads the team in hits, runs, stolen bases and slugging percentage.
“Zach makes us go. There’s no doubt about that,” Herbst said. “Good things seem to happen when he gets on base.”
Junior second baseman Austin Geller is hitting .371, and senior third baseman Zach Whalen is at .348. Senior first baseman Dylan Grall is the team’s power source. Grall leads the team with four home runs and 28 RBIs.
Senior right-hander Brett Fredricks will get the start against Middleton. Fredricks, a first-team all-conference selection, is 8-1 with a 3.24 ERA.
“Brett’s got the ability to eat up innings,” Herbst said. “We used him to start games and to finish games. He’s been a rock.”
The rest of the starting lineup for Craig will include sophomore catcher Charlie Meyer, and an outfield of senior rightfielder Keith Wright, junior centerfielder Christian DeCremer, and senior Ben Olin or Nick Weber in left.
The Cougars will get the unenviable task of facing Middleton’s Shane Adler on Tuesday. Adler was the Big Eight’s Player of the Year after going 8-0 with a 1.06 ERA, and defeated Craig, 10-1, late in the conference season.
“He’s the real deal,” Herbst said of Adler. “He’s always around the plate and is tough on a hitter when he gets ahead in the count.
“The key for us will be to try a get a run or two early. He seems to get better as the game goes on.”
Although the Cougars are ecstatic about making the school’s first state appearance in nine years, Herbst said they’re going up with a purpose.
“These kids are way too competitive to just settle for just making it to state,” Herbst said. “We’re going up there with the mindset to play three games.”
Overall, it will be Craig’s 12th state appearance, with the previous 11 trips coming under WBCA Hall of Fame coach Bob Suter. The Cougars won 1983, 1984 and 1998 state championships and were runners-up in 1999 and 2001.