A loss doesn’t generally define a season.
Especially when you win a state title.
Yet, that’s exactly the case for Janesville Craig’s 2015 state championship baseball team.
The Cougars rolled to a 29-1 record en route to a WIAA Division 1 state title. But five years later, head coach Victor Herbst said it was the lone loss—a 6-2 Big Eight Conference defeat at the hands of Sun Prairie—that set the tone for rest of the regular and postseason. Craig went into that game with a 19-0 record and was ranked No. 1 in the state.
“It was a good wakeup call for us that we couldn’t just show up and teams were going to roll over for us,” Herbst said. “We followed that game up with a road game at (Madison) Memorial two days later where we won a grinder of a game, 2-1 in 12 innings. That really helped our team as far as toughness goes and being able to stay with it.
“That week in our season really propelled us and prepared us for the postseason run.”
The state title was the fourth in the storied program’s history and came in dominating fashion. The Cougars cruised to a Big Eight title with a 17-1 record and outscored six tournament opponents 37-6. In three state tournament games, Craig pitchers allowed only two runs, including back-to-back shutouts in the semifinal and title games.
How good was the starting pitching that season? Alex Marro and Chase Nyborg were a combined 17-1 with an ERA of 1.50. Sophomore Nick Cramer took the mound in the state title game against Kimberly and got the win in a 2-0 victory.
Cramer said talking about the championship season never gets old.
“I remember at the end-of-the-season banquet, the coaches talking about how as years go by, that season will seem more and more special,” Cramer said. “And they were certainly correct.
“That particular team was so special because there was so much talent. The seniors that year were super solid, and the coaches made sure we would succeed. There was also great leadership and contributions from every grade level on that team which made it all the more fun.”
Craig opened state tournament play with a 7-2 quarterfinal win over Baraboo. Senior Kevin Brandt went 3-for-4 with two doubles to lead the offense, while Marro went six-plus solid innings to get his ninth win of the season.
The Cougars faced state-ranked Oconomowoc in the semifinals and rode the left arm of Nyborg to a 4-0 win. The offense sputtered a bit with only three hits, but Nyborg’s complete game—which featured seven strikeouts—sent the Cougars into the state title game.
Along with Cramer’s gutsy performance on the mound in the title game, McCauley Cox delivered the big hit with a two-run single in the bottom of the fifth that plated the only runs of the game. Cramer threw five scoreless innings before flamethrower Nick Blomgren came on in relief in the sixth to pick up the save.
“What we asked of Nick (Cramer) in the title game was a tall task to ask of a sophomore,” Herbst said. “He delivered above and beyond any expectations we had going in.
“And a big play that gets lost in all of this was when JT Smithback made an outstanding diving catch on a line drive going away from him to end an inning and leave two runners on base. If that ball gets down or behind, that might’ve tied the game at 2-2.”
As good as the pitching was all season long, the offense was downright scary. Craig averaged 7.6 runs per game and scored 10 or more in 11 of 30 games.
Most teams, especially at the high school level, have a significant dropoff after the fifth or sixth hitter in the lineup. Not Craig. Teams were forced to pick their poison with the Cougars. The top five hitters of Cox, Evan Spry, Blomgren, Brandt and Smithback all had a batting average of .344 or better, with Smithback leading the way with at .416.
Senior captain Trayton Christiansen hit eighth and sophomore Jack Blomgren—now a junior at the University of Michigan—batted ninth. Each hit .277 for the season with both having an on-base percentage over .400.
Brandt said the Cougars were not only talented but a close-knit group, as well.
“I think what made us special is that we had a really relaxed environment and nobody really had an ego,” Brandt said. “From the get-go, everyone seemed to mesh and know their individual role, whether it was P.O. (pitcher only), designated runner or everyday starter.
“Overall, it was just cool to compete with people you’ve been playing with since we’ve been like 10, and to have it manifest together with some great other players and a great coaching staff.”
Along with the strong baseball mind that Herbst possesses, he also had a pair of top-notch assistant coaches in Pat Campbell and Ben Yaucher. Campbell was responsible for calling each and every pitch for a staff that finished the season allowing one earned run in three state tournament games. Yaucher coached first and knows the game as well as anybody.
It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since the Cougars won state, but for the players and coaches on that team, it seems like only yesterday.