Fresh start puts Fort at state
The veteran Fort Atkinson High School softball coach broke one of his unwritten rules by starting a freshman on opening day in 2007. In fact, he went far beyond his book of reason in starting not only one freshman, but five.
Agnew looks like a genius now.
Those freshmen are now seniors, and they have led Fort Atkinson to its third WIAA state tournament berth and first since 2000. The Blackhawks (22-4) play defending state champion Luxemburg-Casco (18-9) in a Division 2 semifinal game at 6 p.m. Friday at Goodman Diamond in Madison.
Now in his 17th season, Agnew had never even brought a freshman up to varsity, let alone start five.
“Everybody thought I was crazy for doing that, and maybe I was, but Paul (Olson) and I had coached those girls since they were little,” Agnew said. “We knew what they were capable of doing.
“I think the consensus was that we would finish last in our conference that year, but we ended up second.”
Fort Atkinson won the Badger South this season with a 9-3 record. The Blackhawks, behind seven senior starters, expected to play at state.
“Our goal all along with this group was to win a state championship,” Agnew said. “Last year, we thought we had a chance, too. But instead of playing better as the year went on, we weren’t playing our best ball at the end of the year when you need to be.
“This year, we’ve gotten better as the season has gone along. Hopefully, we’ve got two more good games in us.”
The Blackhawks enter the state tournament with a .334 batting average. Junior outfielder Maddy Podmolik, a transfer from Deerfield, leads the team with a robust .464 batting average. She already has established season school records with five home runs and 39 hits.
The five four-year starters are outfielder Cassidy Lyons, pitcher Emilie Bakken, outfielder Mikaela Hitt, first baseman Nikki Boos and catcher Ashley Boos.
Nikki and Ashley are distant relatives, but Ashley’s brother (Josh) was on the Fort Atkinson baseball that played in the state tournament this week. Nikki is the granddaughter of Fort High legend Don Gruber, the school’s former boys basketball coach and athletic director.
Seniors Alex Agnew, the coach’s daughter, and Andrina Doellstedt also start. Lyons is the program’s all-time leader in almost every offensive category, while Bakken is the all-time leader in wins with 45.
Coach Agnew believes the team’s rugged nonconference schedule, which featured Big Eight Conference co-champion Janesville Craig, Rock Valley North champion Edgerton and Rock Valley South champion Brodhead, fine-tuned the Blackhawks.
“When Paul and I were talking before the season about our nonconference schedule, we said we’d be lucky to finish .500,” Agnew said. “As it turned out, we lost only one nonconference game, and that was to a very good Craig team (whom the Blackhawks also defeated).
“We played a schedule, including our conference, of half Division 1 and half Division 2 teams. That’s a big help when you get into the tournament.”
Coach Agnew knows Luxemburg-Casco presents a big challenge in the state opener, but he’s not putting a lot of stock into scouting the Spartans.
“We’ve got a saying here that says: ‘It’s not who you play, but how we play,’ ” Agnew said. “Most games are lost on mistakes, so which team makes the fewer mistakes Friday is probably going to come out on top.
“Amber Foerster, our leadoff hitter, is 7-for-7 in the tournament. She gets on, and that usually gets us going.”
Fort Atkinson practiced early Tuesday morning so the entire team could head up to Grand Chute to watch the surprising Blackhawk boys baseball team play in the state tournament.
Although Fort Atkinson lost a Division 1 quarterfinal game to Madison La Follette, coach Agnew said the school and community have been buzzing about the good fortunes of the softball and baseball teams.
“Our girls are the baseball team’s biggest supporters,” Agnew said. “We never once worried about the baseball team stealing our thunder.
“We’re proud of what they accomplished, and I know they’ll be there rooting for us.”
Meanwhile, Jeff Agnew has lived for four years with the decision to start five freshmen. Now, he’s hoping the reward for everybody will come in the form of a gold ball.