Three weeks ago, the UW-Whitewater baseball team found itself in unfamiliar territory.
Call it a first-inning jam to start the season, if you will.
The Warhawks, ranked to open the season and coming off their fifth Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship in six seasons, lost four of their first five games during their spring trip down to Florida.
“We’re not a program that is used to having more losses than wins. The players weren’t used to it, and I wasn’t used to it,” said UW-W head coach John Vodenlich, who entered the season with 569 career wins and a .727 winning percentage.
But the Warhawks did not hit the panic button.
They knew that while they were just getting their season started, many of the other teams they faced down south were in full swing. As Vodenlich said, his starting pitchers were tossing about three innings in their first outings of the season, while opposing pitchers were able to go eight innings.
The team also did its best to think about the big picture.
“One of our objectives is to play the best competition we can,” Vodenlich said. “And anyone from down south is a tough challenge, so we played some very good teams and challenged ourselves.
“At the end of the day, if you look at our ultimate goal to improve every day and make a late-season run, we accomplished our goal.”
Indeed, the Warhawks have seemingly found their way.
They are 11-2 in their past 13 games, have crept their way back into the national rankings and are sitting at 5-1 and atop the early WIAC standings heading into a pair of scheduled home doubleheaders against UW-Stout this weekend.
“We weren’t playing very good, and we were trying to figure out who we are as a team,” Vodenlich said of the tough start.
“Sometimes you try to be the team you were last year, and we’re not the team we were. There’s positives and negatives to that, and we just needed to figure things out. We’re starting to solidify some of those issues.”
It’s important to note that Vodenlich says “starting to.” Though the Warhawks have improved their record, he certainly doesn’t feel his team has reached its full potential.
In fact, he’s not sure any single one of his players has reached that point. Not even outfielder Cal Aldridge, who is hitting an impressive .460 with seven homers, 19 RBI and 24 runs scored through 63 at-bats in 18 games.
“I don’t like where he’s at swing-wise, and neither does he. He’d tell you he’s struggling to get in a groove. He’s yet to hit his stride,” Vodenlich said. “When he finally does, some miraculous things could happen. He’s a solid performer and class individual and it’s great to have the type of leadership.
“But there’s not one player who is playing as good as I think they’re capable of. And for me, that’s not a disappointment, it’s a great sign, because I know they’re going to work hard and continue to improve.
“I think we still have the potential to be a special team.”
The Warhawks were ranked No. 23 in the latest coaches association/D3baseball.com poll.
A strong starting pitching rotation has helped achieve that ranking.
Michael Kaska, the reigning WIAC pitcher of the year is 2-2 through five starts, with a 2.53 ERA. He’s struck out 45 batters and walked just seven in 32 innings.
Sophomores Matt O’Sullivan and Westin Muir have done their best to match the veteran righty up to this point. O’Sullivan is 2-2 with a 1.99 ERA, while Muir is 2-0 with a 2.01 ERA.
“Michael has done exactly what we’ve asked him to do. Opponents are hitting .217, so that’s a pretty solid starter,” Vodenlich said. “I feel really good about those top three starters, and then our bullpen is starting to sort itself out.”
Janesville’s Tom Klawitter continues as the Warhawks’ pitching coach and is now in his fourth season.
His staff should help the team make another run at a WIAC title. UW-W was picked in the league’s preseason poll as the favorite to win the league title again.
La Crosse, at 6-2, is currently in second place. Stout comes to Whitewater at 5-3. The teams are scheduled to play twice today and twice Sunday, though inclement weather may force Sunday’s games to be played Monday.
“I would suspect that La Crosse and Stevens Point will absolutely challenge us, and we’ll see Stout this weekend,” Vodenlich said. “I hope by the end of the year we’re playing the kind of baseball that leads us to a conference title.”
Vodenlich and the Warhawks aren’t concerned with how they started.
As long as it leads them to another solid finish.