Whether the Waupaca baseball team can repeat as Eastern Valley Conference champions remains to be seen, but coach John Koronkiewicz believes the pieces are in place for another successful season.
“I think we have some potential to be a pretty good baseball team,” he said. “We have to be consistent on the mound. The game always starts on the mound. We have guys that have enough stuff, it’s controlling it that’s the key right now.
“The team chemistry is very good,” he added. “You have to hope that the young guys who step in can do the job. Although they’re young, they’re still pretty good baseball players. They’ll pick up the game relatively quickly, but we’re going to have to work at it.”
The Comets and Freedom shared the EVC championship last year with 12-4 records, followed by Appleton Xavier (10-5), Ripon (10-6) and Fox Valley Lutheran (9-6).
“I think Freedom and Xavier have some very good baseball players this year,” Koronkiewicz said. “Other than that, the guys are usually pretty competitive. FVL has some pretty good players and Little Chute is on the rise. There are four or five teams that you have to be very careful of because they can beat you.”
Returning players include junior Johnny Popham, a first-team all-conference infielder as a sophomore. He led the team with a .491 batting average and was 6-0 on the mound. He also pitched six complete games and had a 2.08 ERA.
On the other hand, the Comets have to replace first-teamer Jared Erickson; second-teamers Bryce Neidert and Zander Neuville; and third-teamer Alex Grall.
“We lose more offensively than pitching-wise and defense,” Koronkiewicz said. “We lose our No. 3, No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 hitters. Those were very good guys in the lineup, so we miss that offense. Hopefully, the guys in other positions will have the kind of year that you want them to have and the young guys develop into pretty good baseball players.”
Waupaca opened the season March 31 with a 13-8 win over Ripon, a state qualifier last year. The two teams met again April 2. Ripon scored 10 runs in the top of the first inning, but the Comets answered with 11 of their own in the second to take a 12-11 lead. The game was suspended in the fourth inning with the Comets leading 20-14.
The Comets trailed the Tigers 3-0 after one inning in the season opener, but came up with two runs in the second and one in the third.
Ripon regained the lead with three runs in the fifth, but Waupaca scored six times in the sixth and added four more in the seventh. Ripon came up with a pair of runs in the bottom of the seventh, but still came up five runs short.
Popham worked five innings and struck out seven batters to get the win on the mound. The Comets also took advantage of 16 walks.
“To say that our pitching has to be a little bit more consistent is an understatement,” Koronkiewicz said. “Regardless of the zone, you still have to be able to throw strikes and put it in play. Otherwise, you see exactly what you saw today. You have to remember that normally, we aren’t playing these games. Our pitchers are getting more time in the gym where they can work on their mechanics, work on their pitches. In all honesty, we just haven’t had that time. Hopefully, we’ll come back for a doubleheader (Saturday, April 11, at New London) and get back into the conference schedule.”
The game may be continued later in the season, according to Koronkiewicz.
“We’ll take a look at the end of the season and if the game is truly important for standings and so on, they’ll come back and we’ll have to complete those three innings,” he said.
This is Ripon’s final season in the EVC, as the Tigers, along with Winneconne and Berlin, are moving to a new conference for the 2015-16 season.
“Ripon is one of the teams we won’t play anymore, so this is the last go-round for us playing them in a conference game,” Koronkiewicz said. “We could maybe pick them up for a nonconference game. Hopefully, we can keep that contact with the teams we’ve played for a long, long time.”
As in the past couple of years, EVC teams will play each other in doubleheaders or in consecutive games.
“Our conference went to that kind of scheduling a couple years ago and it forces you to be deeper at the pitching position,” Koronkiewicz said. “You’re going to get a No. 2, a No. 3 or maybe even a No. 4 (pitcher). Today, we threw for different guys and that was important, You never know with Wisconsin weather. All of a sudden, you get rainouts and you’re backed up. You have to develop as many guys on the mound as possible. We’re still working on that.”