Milton Raptors baseball players Connor Schneider, left, J.T. Smithback, center, and McCauley Cox pose for a portrait Saturday, July 7, 2018, at Schilberg Park in Milton.

With the regular season about halfway over, Milton Junction Pub Raptors manager Doug Welch sees a playoff run coming together for his Rock River League club.

The Raptors (7-5, 4-4 RRL) are in sixth place in the 10-team Southern Division as they prepare to face Watertown today. The top six teams in the division make the playoffs, with the top two receiving first-round byes.

So, the Raptors have some work to do over the final month of the regular season.

“Every weekend is pivotal,” Welch said Friday evening. “We feel really good (that) if we start stacking some wins we’re going to wind up in the playoffs one way or another.”

Welch said the Raptors are younger and more athletic than in years past. Veterans like Josh and Joe Shere have hung up their uniforms while younger players have filtered into the lineup.

“We’ve really been a team in transition this year,” Welch said. “We’ve been an older team, a veteran team for a long time. Guys cycle out. That’s the circle of life in the Rock River League.”

The youth wave begins with a group of players Welch labeled the “Triad of Terror.” It’s comprised of McCauley Cox, J.T. Smithback and Connor Schneider, who bring speed and pop to the top of the Raptors’ batting order. Cox, a 2016 Janesville Craig graduate, and Schneider, a native of Crystal Lake, Illinois, played baseball together at UW-Whitewater.

Smithback, a 2015 Craig graduate, attends UW-Oshkosh and plays for the school’s Division II hockey team.

Cox led Milton in batting average (.375) and home runs (2) last season on his way to being named the Southern Division’s Rookie of the Year.

Smithback hit .286 in limited action. Schneider is in his first season with the Raptors.

“They’re funny, and they’re all really good athletes,” Welch said. “If we’re going to have success, they’re the ones who are going to make it go. They’ve always got a story about what they’ve been doing earlier in the week.”

Heading into the weekend, the Raptors’ .349 on-base percentage ranked fourth in the Southern Division.

The team’s 1.81 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) ranked seventh.

Clyman the team to beat

Last season, the Raptors won seven of their final 10 games to finish third in the Southern Division. They’ll need a similar run over the next few weeks to clinch a seventh straight postseason trip.

Clyman (11-1 RRL) appears to be the class of the Southern Division this season. The Canners sent seven players to the Rock River League All-Star Game last week and were ranked No. 3 in the state in a midseason poll.

The Canners blanked Milton 10-0 on June 24.

“They’re as good a team that we’ve seen in the South,” Welch said. “They’re a stacked team this year.”

Clyman leads the Southern Division with a 1.05 WHIP and is second in on-base percentage (.393). Brock Vredeveld, who will be a senior at Wisconsin Lutheran College in the fall, owns a 2.16 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in 50 innings pitched for the Canners. Josh Oswald (.500), Anthony Degalley (.458) and Ryan Kaul (.417) are the batting-average leaders for the Southern Division leaders.

Neosho (8-3) and Johnson Creek (7-3) are second and third, respectively, followed by Hustisford (8-5), the reigning Rock River League grand champion which moved into the Southern Division this season. Lebanon (6-4) is fifth, one game ahead of Milton.

“We have two-game weekends all the rest of the way so things are going to be decided real quick,” Welch said. “It’s going to be tough to finish second but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.”

Seven of the Raptors’ final 10 regular season games are against teams above them in the Southern Division standings.

Milton holds its playoff fate in its own hands.

Bryan Wegter is a sports copy editor for The Gazette. Email him at bwegter@gazettextra.com

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