Fort Atkinson turnaround and trip to state hard to believe

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Dave Wedeward
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
— Fort Atkinson High School’s baseball players have done just about everything except challenge their coach to try out for the big leagues.

Short of that, the Blackhawks have provided close to a stunning replay of the “The Rookie,” an enchanting film that portrayed the true-life story of a Texas high school baseball team and its coach rising from the ashes to realize their dreams.

Fort Atkinson coach Mark Rowley may not duplicate the 98 mph fastball of Jimmy Morris (“The Rookie”) or be on his way to pro ball, but Rowley could throw with the best as a star quarterback for Evansville High in 1976-77, and he has carried over his high school and college playing experiences in football and baseball to ignite his amazing 2010 team.

Similar to the Big Lake Owls, who went from worst to first in the 2002 movie, Rowley’s team has risen from a 1-20 record to once-unthinkable heights with seven wins in the last eight games. And this week, the Blackhawks will play out their seemingly impossible dream.

The next scene is scheduled for 3 p.m. today, with Fort Atkinson (8-21) paired against Madison La Follette

(17-9) in the WIAA Division 1 state quarterfinals at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute.

If you find that unbelievable for a team that went 0-12 in the Badger South, you’re not alone.

“I’m still pinching myself (to make sure it’s true),” Rowley admitted.

Truth be told, Fort Atkinson turned its season around after an inspirational talk by the coach—again strikingly similar to what happened with coach Morris in real life and the movie. The Blackhawks’ day of reckoning came after a doubleheader loss to Janesville Craig on Saturday, May 22, at Riverside Park left the team with 20 defeats.

“I had to put some pressure on them to realize that there’s certain things we’re not going to do,” Rowley said. “With the comments I made that day, they had to make some decisions.

“I know I had some JV kids I could have moved up, and I had the prime opportunity to do it and look to the future. But I wanted them to decide the path we wanted to go.

“From that point, we came back with a good attitude the next week. We went 3-for-4 the last week, and then the playoffs.”

Ah, yes, the playoffs! They have sent 12th-seeded Fort Atkinson soaring to Fox Cites with quality victories over Stoughton, Verona, Oregon and Oconomowoc.

“Disney magic at its best,’’ as one of the movie reviews said.

But the Fort story goes beyond that, Rowley believes.

“There’s no magic out there,” he said. “These kids just believe and are confident in themselves.

“Right now, we’re playing baseball the way it should be played and not worrying about being 1-20 or 8-21. And that’s the part that finds ourselves where we are today.

“We’ve had some situations this year, some challenges from within and outside,” Rowley said. “Those things can influence how you can respond. And this team has responded in what has really brought it together—tighter than I ever would have hoped to get.”

The Blackhawks also have gotten to today with some shifts in player positions. In particular, it was turning junior shortstop Mike Knutson and junior left fielder Eric Burow into front-line pitchers.

Each has won two games in the tournament, and the two right-handers have combined to pitch 26 1/3 of the 28 postseason innings.

“Eric and Mike started the season not as pitchers,” Rowley said. “I knew Mike pitched as a freshman, but he hurt his elbow, then stepped away from being a pitcher and concentrated on being a shortstop.

“He’s very a good college prospect and was looking at the big picture for himself, with his hitting, defense and playing in the field. But he came to us and said, ‘You know, coach , if you need me to pitch or close down a game if we get in that situation, I’m there.’

“Mike’s a kid who lives baseball,” Rowley said. “He plays down in Kenosha on an AAU team that travels all over the Midwest in the summer. So he plays with a lot of high-quality kids, and we knew he would be a huge boost for us.

“At the same time, some of Eric’s teammates came to me and said, ‘You know, Eric pitched last fall in the Madison fall league and did outstanding.’

“I said to Eric, ‘Do you want to pitch this year?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

“So we find ourselves two guys three-quarters of the way through the season,” Rowley said with some amazement. “They’re the two pitchers who are doing the job for us now, and we’re going to ride that horse.’’

That might be along with junior right-hander Tyler Jorsted, who was in a zone of his own while allowing only three hits in a pivotal, 2-1 win over Rock Valley North co-champion Jefferson late in the season.

All told, Blackhawk baseball has reached a level that might signal a turnaround for the school’s entire boys athletic program, which has struggled big time in football, basketball and baseball the last two years.

“You would hope a spark has been lit,” Rowley said. “And maybe it has. I know we’ve got some classes coming up that, as coaches, we feel are hopefully going to be some stellar years for us.

“I’m flat-out excited about the future at Fort Atkinson. And I know (Steve) Mahoney is football and Mike (Hintz) is for basketball. We think we’ve got reason to be excited.”

Right now, Fort Atkinson’s excitement is focused on baseball and the girls softball team that also will play in the state tournament later this week.

“This is a brand-new experience for all of us,” Rowley said of the baseball tournament. “It’ll be exciting, and I don’t want us to not enjoy the experience. But I don’t want us to think that we’re going just for one game, either.

“We’ve got to take care of business like we have been and not let the excitement take us out of our game. We should be able to battle and make it a game, and I have no doubt that we can.”

After all, the Big Lake Owls did.

Last updated: 2:04 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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