Sun Prairie and Middleton are considered favorites to make the Division 1 WIAA baseball state tournament, but fighting for the tough Big Eight conference title comes first.
Although Sun Prairie and Middleton are ranked the highest, the conference has players who could beat a team on any night.
Sun Prairie head coach Rob Hamilton said the 8-1 win versus Madison Memorial was bigger than the upcoming doubleheader at Middleton on Saturday.
“We could not look past Memorial,” said Hamilton. “We sort of stubbed our toe the night before against Oshkosh North. We made some blunders that could have had a hangover effect, but our team really bounced back well.”
The conference can give any team a tough match up, especially if a team makes mistakes and doesn’t play to its potential.
“We go with the approach that every game is a huge game in the Big Eight,” said Hamilton. “You might be able to beat a Middleton, and the very next day you have to face a kid from Beloit, a tough lefty, that can beat you just as easily. So, we try not to get too wrapped up in who we’re playing, but just kind of worry about our dugout.”
The Cardinals haven’t been 100 percent so far and the hitting has struggled a bit. But the pitching, led by senior Michael Handel, and the defense have kept them in games.
Handel is 2-0, and has given up two earned runs in 12 innings. Sun Prairie also had a good performance from Ryan Tanner who only allowed an earned run versus Waunakee; a team some believe may win the Northern Badger this year.
“I’ve been very happy with our pitching and defense,” said Hamilton. “We have really had to rely on some kids without mound experience. They’ve stepped up and answered the call so far. I have to say I am a little disappointed in our hitting, but our pitching and defense has kept us in most of the games, and they have won most of our games so far.“
Even with the early success and the tough road ahead, the talk of returning to the state tournament remains in the discussion. Some may see the evaluated expectations as a distraction, but Hamilton doesn’t see any added pressure at all.
“I think these kids are just accustomed to expecting to win,” said Hamilton. “I don’t think it is anything new to them. I think they realize it is difficult to make this team… It is a tough thing to battle through.
“The expectations of finishing first or second in the Big Eight… I don’t really think it really adds extra pressure to them,” he continued. “I would think it would alleviate some, because they assume they are always going to be in it.“
The Cardinals did make sure the players were ready for the tournament, however. They scheduled some tough non-conference games. Waunakee, DeForest, Oconomowoc, the projected Little Ten champion, and Oshkosh North are all teams located in the same sectional as Sun Prairie. The match ups give the athletes a chance to feel what it may be like later in the year.
“We try to not get too wrapped up in any talk,” said Hamilton. “Once the game starts, I don’t think anybody is worried about the tournament talk… Come tournament time, I think our non-conference season really helps us. We tried to schedule some pretty competitive games so these kids are tournament ready.“
For now, Sun Prairie will focus its time on the next game. The game just happens to be against Big Eight foe Middleton. Middleton is 4-0 versus Sun Prairie in the past two seasons, and they have averaged 11 runs a game during the stretch.
“Middleton has always been a big rivalry of ours, and we haven’t fared well in the past few years,” said Hamilton on the upcoming doubleheader. “We are hoping to change that this Saturday.”