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Late runs push North past Memorial in crosstown regional final

Chase Williams heard the noise when he came to bat in the top of the sixth inning. North was down 4-3 and the bases were loaded with one out. After Logan Hesselman drew a walk to juice the bases, a coach in the Huskies dugout yelled “Chase, grab a helmet,” and up the senior went looking to tie the game by any means necessary.

The North faithful in Carson Park erupted as the senior stepped to the dish. Williams did his best to stay focused.

“I kind of heard it, but I just tried to zone it out,” Williams said. “I wanted to stay within myself and do what I could do and just did my job.”

Willliams stepped to the dish against Memorial reliever Logan Zinsmaster. The senior said he was looking for a base hit while North head coach Jordan Fish said he was hoping Williams could put a ball in in the outfield for a sac-fly.

“He’s a kid that’s gonna give us a good at-bat,” Fish said.

The senior got ahead 2-0, but Zinsmaster battled back to make it an even 2-2. After spoiling a putaway pitch foul, Williams took a ball outside to set up a high-stress full count. With the pressure at a breaking point, Williams took the payoff pitch. It was outside. Ball four. The senior yelled back at his fired up dugout and it was a brand-new ballgame at 4-4.

North wasn’t done. Catcher Jack Gorman walked on five pitches and North had the 5-4 advantage, its first lead since it was 2-1 in the top of the third.

Cooper Jesperson — who missed most of the year with an arm injury he suffered in a basketball game in January — came on in relief, getting Chase Watkins to ground into a fielder’s choice that prevented a run from scoring, but Aiden Pankratz checked his swing on a close payoff pitch and drew another bases-loaded walk to bring home the fourth Huskies run of the frame.

Jesperson struck out Barrows to end the threat, but the damage had been done. North was ahead 6-4 and never looked back. The Huskies bested their crosstown foe for the second time this season and was off to sectionals for the second time in three seasons.

“We know how to take a [punch],” North’s Aidan Ecker said. “That’s a big strength of this group… It’s really special when you can take it all like that and come back and pick everyone up. There was never a moment in the dugout where anyone was down. We were all up and ready to go.”

Prior to that fateful sixth inning, the game was beginning to look reminiscent of the last time the crosstown rivals locked up. Memorial starting pitcher Brady Johnson had tossed a complete game and allowed just one run in the Old Abes 8-1 win back on May 9 despite working through some spotty command early.

The Huskies had two runs across this time — one in the second on a Caleb Moss single that scored Tyler Barrows and one in the third on a Watkins sacrifice-fly — but Johnson was starting to settle in. The junior tossed scoreless fourth and fifth innings and Memorial had taken a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the fourth on an Ian Bauer single followed by a Sawyer Stein sac-fly.

Johnson toed the rubber in the sixth but the Huskies flipped the script. A walk and a hit batsman brought Ben Mettler to the plate with a chance to do damage. The shortstop delivered a sharp base hit that scored Moss to make it 4-3. That was the end of the line for Johnson, who was relieved by Zinsmaster, and the Huskies had new life.

“The kids never never flinched,” Fish said. “Wherever we were in the season, we’d have a rough game or we’d have a rough stretch and the kids never doubted the process and the effort was always there. And that came through today.”

EC North baseball

North celebrates after recording the final out in its 6-4 regional final win over Memorial.

Another reversal of fortunes came from Aidan Ecker, who relieved starting pitcher Chase Watkins in the fourth. Ecker was roughed up in his lone start against Memorial earlier this season, but after allowing an Ian Bauer single on the first pitch he threw, the senior pitcher was sharp.

Ecker kept the Old Abes scoreless in the fifth and tossed a crucial 1-2-3 inning in the sixth. Ecker took the mound in the bottom of the seventh with the most dangerous part of the order due up in Stein, Leo Lauscher and David Ankeny, the 3-4-5 hitters.

Stein led the inning off with a walk, but Ecker brushed it off. The righty got ahead of Lauscher and froze the third baseman on strike three. Ankeny then flew out and Tyler Iverson came to the mound with the Old Abes down to their last out.

Iverson fell behind 0-2 but stayed within himself, taking three close pitches to run the count full. Ecker was unphased. The senior challenged Iverson and the Old Abes six-hole hitter gave the payoff pitch a ride to right, but Moss was there to make the play and send the Huskies to the sectional round.

“I knew they were gonna hit the ball well, and they were gonna put it in play,” Ecker said. “But just going up there with 100% trust in the guys behind me, I’m not afraid to get in the zone.”

North will take on No. 1 seed Stevens Point in the sectional semifinals at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Marshfield. The winner will play in the sectional finals later that day.

“Coach always says we always have these highs and lows in the season,” Williams said. “We just got to keep playing the high.”