Back like it never left: Fall Creek baseball thriving after two-year hiatus

For two years, Fall Creek baseball didn’t exist. Well, not as its own entity at least. Due to low numbers in the program, the Crickets entered a co-op with Black River Falls after their 2021 season. In 2022 and 2023, Fall Creek High School didn’t field its own team.

There wasn’t a fear that the move would be permanent. The Crickets knew their current crop of freshman were coming and that it would allow Fall Creek to fly solo once again and that’s exactly what happened.

Fall Creek welcomed eight freshmen to its program this season. Adding in three sophomores, one junior and one senior, the Crickets roster 13 players. Fall Creek doesn’t have a traditional varsity and junior varsity program, but that was a moot point.

Baseball was back at Fall Creek High School and that was the main priority.

“I think it’s been huge for our community,” Fall Creek head coach Matt Prissel said. “Over the last two years, [there were] a number of people you would see at different sporting events and they would want to talk baseball and wonder when it was coming back. So they were looking forward to it.”

“I often steal one of the phrases from the [Southeastern Conference] because I like SEC sports. And their quote is ‘It just means more,’ and I’ve said that sometimes about sports in general here in Fall Creek.”

Coming off a two-year hiatus, simply fielding a team itself was enough to call the season a success. No matter the score at the end of the game or the record at the end of the season, the Crickets players were able to wear their own school uniforms on a baseball diamond once again.

In fact, no one expected much of Fall Creek this season. Prissel stated that the Crickets were picked to finish “as the bottom team” in the West Cloverbelt by the WBCA Yearbook at the beginning of the season. It’s not an outlandish prediction for a team rostering 13 players with only two being upperclassmen.

The Crickets entire starting infield is even made up of freshmen and when junior Nathan Kurtz is pitching, Fall Creek starts a freshman at catcher. Nobody would’ve blamed the Crickets for having a traditional rebuilding year.

Fall Creek had other ideas. From the get go, the Crickets flashed potential. Double-digit runs in a game wasn’t an uncommon sight. The Crickets kept hanging around in the conference title picture until breaking out just before May began.

A 16-0 win over Augusta on April 29 kicked off a five-game winning streak, including a sweep of Bloomer that put Fall Creek in the driver’s seat for the West Cloverbelt crown. Fall Creek entered Tuesday needing a victory to outright win the conference.

Jack Walden, the team’s only senior, held the Ramblers to just one run, Logan Gustafson, a freshman, had a three-hit night and the Crickets defeated Regis 5-1. Despite two seasons of not even existing and rostering a staggering amount of underclassmen, Fall Creek had won its first conference title since 2019 and 11th in program history.

“To accomplish a conference championship is a really big deal any year, but to accomplish a conference championship in our first year back in the conference is incredibly special and something that the boys will remember for the rest of their lives,” Prissel said.

But just how did this happen? Well, even though the Crickets’ throngs of freshmen didn’t have high school baseball experience, they still had plenty of time under their belt on the diamond. Prissel had even coached them in 14u ball.

Still, the jump from 14u to varsity baseball is a big one. Prissel says the Crickets try to just be as fundamentally sound as possible defensively, have a positive at-bat every time they’re up and not allow extra baserunners.

As to be expected for a team with so much youth, the Crickets ask a lot of their upperclassman in junior Nathan Kurtz and senior Jack Walden, but they’ve both answered the bell.

Walden and Kurtz lead the team in innings pitched and ERA. Walden has been the team’s ace, striking out 71 batters and sporting a 1.74 ERA over 40.1 innings. Kurtz has a 2.06 ERA in 34 innings. On top of that, they’ve provided excellent leadership to the youthful squad. Walden also mans the outfield when he’s not pitching and Kurtz serves as the team’s catcher.

“They’ve been great leaders because they’ve been really patient with some of our younger players,” Prissel said. “When we maybe make some mistakes where we show our youth a little bit, they’ve been patient… They’ve taken a deep breath, stayed in control and been patient.”

The underclassmen get plenty of playing time as well. Every player on Fall Creek’s roster has appeared in at least 14 games and some are thriving. Ethan Westrate has become a fixture of the Crickets lineup. The freshman leads the team in runs batted in (26), batting average (.517) and OPS (1.115). Westrate has also thrown 19.1 innings, third most on the team.

Josh Wright is another freshman having a strong season, hitting .321 and getting on-base at a .424 clip, both the second-best marks on the team. Jamsion Rochester, Finley Wright, Bryson Bann and Brayden Ceranski are other freshmen hitting .250 or better.

The contributions from the underclassmen have been undeniably strong and it presents a very bright picture of the future. Of course, Fall Creek isn’t worried about that right now. The Crickets stand at 13-6 overall and the postseason is drawing near.

There have been and will probably continue to be some growing pains throughout the year. It’s inevitable with a team with so much youth. But no matter what happens the rest of the way, Fall Creek surpassed every expectation laid in front of it and Crickets aren’t going anywhere.

“We’ve had some moments where we’ve looked kind of young and inexperienced,” Prissel said. “But thankfully, we’ve had some other moments where we’ve not shown our youth [and] played some really good baseball this season. Really it’s getting down to just focusing on what’s in front of us.”