The perfect setting for one of the state’s most storied rivalries:
Janesville Craig and Janesville Parker baseball.
The two city schools have met 139 times during the regular and postseason dating back to 1968.
This past week, the series was scheduled to resume with Big Eight Conference games Tuesday and Thursday at Veteran’s Field at Riverside Park. COVID-19 canceled that.
With no games to cover, I’ll take a look back on this longtime heated rivalry that has produced so many memorable games, plays and players.
Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame coaches Bob Suter of Craig and Dan Madden of Parker were part of more games than any others and had plenty to offer as to what has defined the rivalry and why it remains the backbone of Janesville sporting events.
Suter was the head baseball coach at Craig for 33 years, compiling a record of 468-215, with WIAA Division 1 state championships in 1983, 1984 and 1998.
Madden spent 26 years at the helm at Parker, leading the Vikings to the last open-class state championship in 1977. He was inducted into the WBCA hall in 1992.
I also talked with former Parker coach Brian Martin and current Craig coach Victor Herbst as they looked back on their favorite moments in the series.
Craig leads the all-time series with Parker 80-59. Suter was on the winning end of more than half those games.
“The thing I remember most is that the Craig-Parker games ALWAYS drew huge crowds, with fans filling both bleachers and lined up down the lines 8-10 deep,” Suter said. “And our games always seemed to bring out a number of major league scouts, as well. Dale MacReynolds was a fixture at most of them and always was the first one there and the last to leave.
“My memory is not as good as it used to be, but I do remember that in the games against Coach (Dale) Barry and Coach Madden, the team that was the most successful during the year usually got knocked off by the other during the tournament series at some point.
“And I’ll always remember some of the great Parker players over the years like Kent Burdick, Jerry Davis, Gary Gloede, Terry Ryan, the Anackers, the Kluge boys and Ken Manthei, probably because they always made a great play to beat us.”
Parker won its only state baseball title in 1977. Madden said the team’s 2-1 victory over Craig in a subregional game paved the way.
Mike Davis, a New York Mets draft choice in 1978, came on in relief for Parker and struck out nine of 15 batters he faced in earning the win. Davis also doubled and scored in the bottom of the third inning to give the Vikings the lead for good at 2-1.
“To me, that’s the biggest Parker/Craig game ever,” Madden said. “If we don’t beat Craig, we don’t win state.
“I’ve always felt great players elevate their play in the biggest games, and that’s what Mike did that day. He went above and beyond what we could’ve ever expected in that situation.”
Madden also brought up the 1985 regional championship game that saw the Vikings hang on for a 6-4 victory over the Cougars. Craig was the two-time defending state champion.
Parker’s Mark Thompson homered twice in that game, and the Vikings eventually went on to finish runner-up at state. The Vikings hit nine home runs in the postseason, including a state-record three by Mike Brooks at the state tournament.
“We definitely weren’t playing typical Parker baseball that postseason,” Madden said. “I think we hit like eight or nine home runs in five games.
“But again, if we don’t beat a very good Craig team, we never get a chance to play for a state title.”
Madden finished with a 40-42 record against Craig.
Herbst has guided Craig to six state berths, including a Division 1 state title in 2015.
Craig’s had more than its share of success against its crosstown rival under Herbst, but he knows that each and every game is challenge.
Wins and losses don’t always tell the story. Take last year for instance, when top-ranked Craig lost 1-0 to Parker in a regional final game at Riverside. The Cougars had beaten the Vikings 7-0 in both regular-season meetings, but Casey Stone threw a gem in the tournament to knock off the state’s top-ranked team.
And no lead ever seems to be safe, either. Craig trailed 5-0 against Parker in a 2018 sectional final game at Riverside that marked the first time ever that a tournament game between the city schools was played with a state berth on the line. Craig rallied for a 7-5 win.
“That win spoke highly of the character of that team,” Herbst said. “Nothing rattled them, not even falling behind 5-0.
“They refused to lose, and any time you’re playing Parker, that’s the mentality you have to have. The Parker games are always still the biggest of the season for us.”
An 11-1 win over Parker in a 2016 sectional semifinal game also stood out to Herbst, along with a 4-3 regular-season victory over the Vikings in 2015 that served as a springboard to the state title.
“Nothing beats the atmosphere of those Craig/Parker games, especially come tournament time,” Herbst said. “I remember people telling me that back in the day, fans would park up by the golf course and walk down.”
Martin was Parker’s coach for 18 years, compiling a career record of 206-257 in arguably the state’s best baseball conference that includes Craig and Sun Prairie. He led Parker to a state tournament berth in 2014.
“There have been games that should not have been close that were and many that should have been that were not,” Martin said. “Some games were played in great weather, some in terrible weather. I truly enjoyed hearing the stories of Janesville baseball past from guys like Coach Madden, Coach Suter, and the couple of years that I had the privilege of sitting next to Dale Barry in the dugout as our scorekeeper.
“The 23 years that I had the privilege of being directly associated with Parker baseball has definitely played a huge role in my life. Many of those moments are Parker/Craig related.”
Parker’s state tournament year under Martin also produced his most memorable city rivalry game. The Vikings blanked the Cougars 6-0 in a sectional semifinal behind left-hander Hunter Van Zandt.
“We had generated a lot of buzz over the previous few weeks by getting into contention for the Big Eight title,” Martin said. “We played the last regular-season game at Riverside vs. Sun Prairie for the conference championship with a huge crowd. The crowd for the sectional game that day was the biggest that I have ever seen at Riverside.”
Martin also reflected on Parker’s 8-6 regional final win over Craig in 2011.
“Jeff Henke hit a walkoff grand slam to win it,” Martin said. “We were down 6-3 going into bottom of the 7th. We had scored a couple of runs, the score was 6-4, and Jeff came up with the bases loaded and ended it. Probably the craziest ending of any game, much less a Parker/Craig game.”
When will baseball return to Riverside? Probably not until the 2021 season.
For now, all we have are the memories of one of the state’s greatest baseball rivalries.