Twenty years of championship starvation played a motivating factor for the 1994 WIAA Division 1 state champion Sun Prairie High School baseball team.
That’s how long it had been since the Cardinals first brought home a state baseball title dating back to 1974, under the guidance of head coach Leon Piddington.
Although none of the players on the ‘94 state title team were born during the ‘74 championship season, members of the first title team shared their memories and offered encouragement to the ‘94 players.
After securing the gold trophy in ‘94, starting second baseman and tri-captian Jeff Wurster said: “But I think we had the hungry factor going for us because we hadn’t won it for 20 years. And the hungry factor won out.”
It was much more than hunger, however, that accounted for Sun Prairie’s second state baseball championship. It was a blend of extraordinary talent, confidence and cohesiveness that proved to be the right mixture for a team that finished 22-1-1 and brought home the championship trophy from Wausau Athletic Park.
Coming off a 12-2 Big Eight Conference championship season the year before (15-3 overall), the season preview headline in The Star read: ‘Cards seek to repeat baseball championship.’ With an enormous amount of talent returning, the Cardinals were favored to repeat.
Head coach Garry Bahe, who had been Piddington’s assistant during the ‘74 championship season, was cautiously optimistic.
“We have expectations this season, but we must approach the season one game at a time and focus one game at a time,” he said prior to the season opener.
With six of nine starters returning, including having the reigning conference player of the year in Andy Thompson (.463 BA. 5-0, 0.44 ERA), along with first-team all-conference pitcher Brian Sullivan (7-2, 2.50 ERA), first-team all-conference third baseman Scott Mueller, Wurster and starting catcher Mike Twedell, the Cardinals were looking to climb even higher than the previous season.
Without question, Sun Prairie had two of the best pitchers in the state in Sullivan (a UW-Milwaukee recruit) and Thompson (a University of Minnesota recruit, who eventually signed a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays). Pitching led the Cardinals to a consecutive league titles (13-1, 16-1-1 overall regular season). The lone loss was to Janesville Craig, 4-1, while the Cardinals tied Beaver Dam, 6-6, when the game was called due to inclement weather.
Upon conclusion of the regular-season, Bahe said: “I’m really proud of our players and the way they approached this season. We were tabbed as the favorites, but they approached each game individually. And we had some clutch performances all season long.”
Heading into the WIAA tournament season, Sun Prairie was ranked No. 2 in the state and faced No. 4 Watertown in a regional championship game at Ashley Field. The Cardinals cruised past the Goslings, 7-0, thanks to Sullivan’s three-hitter. It was an emotional game for the Goslings as their starting pitcher — a close friend of Sullivan — lost his sister to a tragic accident the day before.
Sun Prairie advanced to the Beaver Dam Sectional and had little difficulty disposing of Oshkosh West, 9-0, and Fond du Lac, 6-3, to earn Sun Prairie’s fourth overall trip to state. The Cardinals had also qualified for state in 1966 and ‘81.
Thompson and Jim Mayfield combined for a two-hitter in blanking Oshkosh West, while Sullivan, who was named the Big Eight player of the year, kept his mound record unblemished by defeating Fond du Lac in the sectional championship game.
Offensively, Thompson was red-hot at the plate hitting a home run, a triple, three doubles and a single.
Hamilton, who was Bahe’s assistant during the ‘94 and ‘97 state title years and has won five state championships as head coach, remembers Sun Prairie’s dominance in the sectional games, especially Thompson’s stellar performance at the plate.
“He was crazy good,” said Hamilton. “I couldn’t believe they even pitched to him.”
To say Sun Prairie’s state tournament opener against Big Eight Conference rival Madison La Follette was interesting would be a gross understatement. During the regular season, the Lancers gave the Cardinals all they could handle with Sun Prairie winning a doubleheader, 5-4 and 1-0. To add to the intensity of the third meeting, an altercation during the doubleheader led to game suspensions for players on both teams.
There was no drama this time as Sullivan took command on the mound and pitched the Cardinals to a 3-1 victory, limiting the Lancers to two hits while striking out eight. Thompson provided the offense with a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning.
“I chose to pitch the first game with a goal to move us onto another day,” said Sullivan.
The next day, Sun Prairie faced Sheboygan South — a 1-0 winner over Fort Atkinson the previous day. The Cardinals struck hard and early building an 8-2 lead. Scott Mueller blasted a three-run home run in the first inning before adding a solo homer in the third. Thompson had a two-run double in the fourth and added a solo home run in the sixth.
But the Redwings battled back and narrowed Sun Prairie’s lead to 8-7, loading the bases in the sixth inning with two outs. The hero of the semi-final game turned out to be outfielder Ryan Pingel who made a diving, game-saving catch in left field to preserve the victory and send the Cards to the title game.
The championship game pitted Sun Prairie (21-1-1) against No. 3 state-ranked Appleton West (22-1).
To preserve innings for Thompson, Bahe started seldom used Jim Mayfield. Mayfield responded to the challenge by pitching the first two innings, allowing no runs and just one hit. Thompson then came on for the final five innings to seal the 3-0 victory as he gave up just one hit and made history by striking out Appleton West’s Matt Erickson, who had never struck out before during his high school career.
Twenty-five years later, Bahe remembers what a special team he had in 1994.
“First of all, it was a fun and great year,” he said. “And working with that group of gentlemen was both a pleasure and fun time.”
Bahe, whose second state championship came three years later, instilled in his players the ‘one game at a time’ approach.
“It was important for that team because of the high expectations people had of them,” he said. “And it was one reason those guys succeeded because they bought into it.”
Bahe said a squeeze play in the tournament opener was a major factor in defeating La Follette. “We needed that because it was a very close game,” he said.
The second game against Sheboygan South also was a nail-biter resulting in a one-run win for the Cardinals.
“Ryan Woods pitched well, but they kept chipping away. Then we brought on Andy Thompson to squelch their rally. And Ryan Pingel also made a great diving catch in the outfield with the bases loaded,” said Bahe.
The head coach remembers the team’s evening meal that night and how down his players were despite the win.
“I told them, ‘Hey, you are playing for the state championship and you just won that game.’ I think they finally realized that,” said Bahe.
In the championship game, Bahe said he couldn’t have asked for more from Mayfield and Thompson, who combined for the shutout.
“The players worked well together all season long and they responded to us as coaches and that was exemplified on the field,” said Bahe. “It was just a great group of guys that meshed well together. All in all, it was a very pleasurable season. And I think that team instilled a new life at the high school level as far as participation.”
Bahe also credited former players from the 1974 team for their support and encouragement during the ‘94 season.
“The support from that team and the community is what you need,” he said. “Sun Prairie was and still is a great baseball community because of all the support.”
Hamilton, who is part of seven of Sun Prairie’s eight state title teams, said of the ‘94 championship team: “What really sticks in my mind is how dominant we were on the mound,” he said. “Andy Thompson and Brian Sullivan practically were unhitable. And Ryan Woods was better than a vast majority of other team’s pitchers. Those guys were just lights out.”
Hamilton said the Cardinals were equally talented defensively and offensively as their final record indicated.
The current head coach, echoed what Bahe said about the support from members of the 1974 championship team.
“The thing I remember is Dave Suchomel and other players on the ‘74 team getting behind this team. They showed the kids their medals and shared their memories of their championship year and that was cool to see,” said Hamilton. “Their support meant so much for our young kids.”