Each year a different motto is unveiled by the Sun Prairie High School varsity baseball team. This year’s motto: ‘Same as it ever was’ was inspired by song lyrics by the group Talking Heads that appropriately fit this year’s team.
The same motto could easily apply to the majority of teams Rob Hamilton has had during his 20 years as head coach. The 2021 Cardinals kept the winning tradition intact, winning the Big Eight Conference title at 17-1; capturing WIAA regional and sectional championships; and capping off a 29-2 season — second best in SPHS baseball history — by winning a state-record ninth Division 1 state title.
Hamilton said it was his long-time assistant Peter Gumina, who came up with this year’s motto. And the head coach fully agreed it was a good choice.
“I think Coach Gumina brought it to my attention and I really liked it,” he said. “We weren’t going to belabor the point that we missed out on a really great opportunity last year. And we weren’t going to change the way we go about things even though there were a lot of changes we had to deal with. But we just decided that Sun Prairie baseball was going to be the same as it ever was.”
As it turned out, it was another milestone season for the Cardinals. Hamilton, who has the winningest percentage among state high school baseball coaches, won his 400th game and now sits with a 20-year record of 421-110-1 (275-69 Big Eight record). Sun Prairie never lost a home game at Summit Credit Union Field this season and the Cardinals, making a 16th appearance at the state tournament, brought home a record-setting ninth gold trophy.
Summarizing the season, Hamilton said: “It was very fulfilling and very appreciative considering what happened last season with no season (pandemic) and then to start this season with the football season still going on when we were having tryouts, and kids wearing masks and couldn’t go in the dugout for practice, it was just a lot of things going on that didn’t involve baseball.
“Trying to keep these kids focused and some still playing football, so it was just remarkable. I guess that might be the word that best describes this season with all those things considered.”
Offensively, Sun Prairie averaged just under 10 runs (9.96) per game. In 31 games, the Cardinals scored 309 runs and won 13 games due to the 10-run mercy rule. As Hamilton pointed out, the run total could have been higher had not so many games ended due to the 10-run rule. This year’s team had a common denominator in a majority of its games — highly productive innings that sometimes reached double figures.
“I think top to bottom, it might be the best team I’ve been with in my 28 years here,” said Hamilton. “It was loaded with everything you need. When you have a leadoff hitter in Carson Shepard, who was kind of our Paul Molitor and ignitor. He’d take a hit by pitch, take a walk, get a base hit, get a double, steal bases. He was our catalyst and that, obviously, was a big key to our offense.
“Our No. 2 hitter, Davis (Hamilton), just had a fantastic year at the plate. Batting behind Carson, I thought he was a perfect fit to move Carson over. And if Carson didn’t get on, Davis was our second-leading base stealer and that also put a runner on in scoring position for Josh (Caron). So I thought Davis did a fabulous job of being our No. 2 hitter which at times can be an unsung hero spot in your lineup.
“Josh Caron is exactly what you are looking for in your No. 3 hitter. He, obviously, has the ability to hit for average and for power, and he’s got the school record for most home runs in a season and tied for career. You couldn’t have asked for a more clutch guy than him.
“In the No. 4 hole you’ve got Liam Moreno and he was first-team all-conference designated hitter. With him behind Josh, it forced a lot of teams to pitch to Josh because they didn’t want to pitch around him to face Liam. So Liam did an awesome job.
“Our sophomore, Jackson Hunley, was super consistent all year long as our No. 5 hitter. You couldn’t ask for more than what he gave us in the No. 5 hole, considering he played a number of positions defensively for us. So he played a huge role for us.
“At No. 6 was Durlin Radlund and he was kind of our second leadoff hitter. He just had a phenomenal year. He started out as our No. 9 hitter, but he just kept hitting and hitting. And he was just invaluable for us in that No. 6 spot.
“Brady Stevens was at No. 7 and he normally was not the offensive player like he was this year. He was a really good pitcher and first baseman, but he had a magical year for us and I couldn’t be happier for him. So deserving and he was phenomenal in that seventh spot. He gave us more than what we expected out of him.
“At the eighth spot was Carter Wambach, who came up with a ton of key hits throughout the year. And he had that big base hit against Bay Port in the championship game and he had several key hits throughout the year. And when you talk about eight hitters and you’ve got Carter Wambach there, everyone in the state would have traded for him.
“Same for the No. 9 hole when you’ve got Addison Ostrenga, who hit for average and also had some power. So he did a really nice job of us as well.”
While Sun Prairie’s offensive was highly explosive, the Cardinals were stingy in giving up runs — opponents scored a total of 92 runs (2.96 per game).
“I thought we were as good offensively as we’ve ever been, and I thought we were as sound defensively as we’ve ever been,” said Hamilton. “I thought Liam Moreno played a fantastic third base for us and got some big outs for us. And Davis had a fantastic year at shortstop. And I think Carson Shepard is the best second baseman in the state.
“I thought Brady Stevens had an unbelievable year at first. He had an incredible play at state where he reached over the railing to get an out and he was excellent digging balls out of the dirt. And in the outfield, you always start in center and Durlin Radlund was our shortstop out there and really took control. And in right field, which I feel is sometimes tougher to play than center field, you had Addison Ostrenga who had a fabulous season and with his arm strength, I don’t think many teams wanted to test him.
“In left field, it was kind of a revolving door between Jackson Hunley and Brady Stevens, and then we decided we really needed Brady at first and so when Jackson Hunley was pitching, we brought up freshman Sam Ostrenga, who has good speed and he did a really nice job for us.
“And Josh Caron behind the plate was so invaluable. We had a fantastic defensive catcher in Matt Deprey and then to be able to throw Josh back there. Most programs don’t get a catcher like that in a lifetime and we get them back-to-back. People don’t realize how many strikes he got us by bringing his glove back into the strike zone. And he did a great job blocking balls and throwing runners out. He was a great captain back there and deserving of being the conference player of the year.”
Due to injuries to Moreno and Stevens along the way, pitching became a challenge for the coaching staff.
“We had some interesting rotations on the mound,” said Hamilton. “At the beginning of the year we had Jason Starr out there, but he struggled in a couple of games. And Liam Moreno was 3-0 at one point, but then he got hurt and never really regained his feel being back on the mound. Brady Stevens was a little behind because he was playing football and then had some arm issues.
“So we had a checkerboard of pitchers on the mound, but when it was all said and done, Brady Stevens was first-team all-conference and when he figured it out he was as dominant as any pitcher in the state.
“We eventually went to our only sophomore on the team, Jackson Hunley, and he really progressed as the season went on. He really grew up a lot on the mound this year and turned into a kid who really wanted the ball. He finished what he started. When we gave him the ball, we told him his mentally better be that at the end of the game you better still be out there. He did a really good job of handling that.
“We also had Ethan Petsch, a junior, who really fit into the mix. His strengths are his location and curve ball and change-up. He came in against Kimberly in long relief and did a fantastic job and also against Union Grove. Those are two games we really needed and he was the right guy.
‘We also had Carter Wambach and Davis (Hamilton) and Josh (Caron) who threw some innings for us. Josh was our closer and he might not be the most polished pitcher, but he’s a great high school pitcher. Give him the ball and he had that mentality that he was going to get you out. He threw hard and had a good curve ball and that’s the end of the story. And that was his mentality.”
Sun Prairie loses nine seniors, including six starters in Shepard, Caron, Stevens, Moreno, Radlund and Wambach. Also departing are Starr, Drew Urban and Isaac Frausto.
“They really meant a lot to what we achieved this year,” said Hamilton. “It was a really good senior group. I don’t mean just talent, but buying into what the program is all about. You take a guy like Isaac Frausto, who may have not had the innings he was hoping for, but, the bottom line, he wanted a state championship. He never once complained about innings or anything else. Just an unbelievable kid to coach and unbelievable kid in general on and off the field. That kind of describes the entire senior group.
“Drew Urban is another perfect example of an Isaac Fraustro, who probably didn’t get the innings he wanted, but came into the season hurt with some back issue that they still haven’t been able to pinpoint. So he never really complained, he just told us how he felt. He was such a trooper and fine gentleman and he would have played more innings had he been healthy.”
Mentally tough with a great passion for baseball is how Hamilton said he will remember the nine seniors.
“They were really dedicated to this team,” he said. “And as a group, I know a lot of the younger groups have learned the value of leadership and how to conduct a team as a senior. And I have to give credit to groups in the past who have shown these seniors also how it is done. That’s one of the things we have been fortunate about — the work ethic these players show and what it takes to get to this level.”
Looking ahead to 2022, there are some big holes to fill.
“We have to get a lot better this summer and they have to keep working to get better, and I know they will,” said Hamilton. “We’re, obviously, looking at the incoming freshmen and the freshmen who just completed their season, along with the JV team. It’s going to have to be a group effort.
“Will we have the talent we had this year? I think you would be foolish to say we might. We have to find other ways to win and it all starts on the mound. We have Ethan Petsch and Jackson Hunley coming back, along with Davis (Hamilton). So we know we have three guys who can win games for us and that’s a good starting point.”
Hamilton said filling the catcher position is a major question mark, along with some infield positions and an outfield position.
“We’ve just got to challenge the kids to compete,” he said. “And then we’ll see where it takes us.”
Hamilton said team awards were recently handed out with the following players receiving recognition: Most Improved Player — Durlin Radlund; Gold Glove Award — Josh Caron; Charlie Hustle Award — Carson Shepard; Cy Young Award — Brady Stevens; Most Improved Player — Josh Caron. This year’s captains were Liam Moreno, Shepard and Caron.