The Muskies now await their opponent for a Friday match-up at Wildwood Park in Sheboygan at 1pm. With the number one seed, Lakeland has a first round bye while the other six conference schools participate in a one game playoff. The three winners join Lakeland in a double elimination tournament on Friday and Saturday (May 7th and 8th). Game's start at 10am and the next game will start a half hour after the conclusion of the previous game (roughly 10am, 1pm, 4pm and 7pm) on Friday. Saturday's games start at 10am. The following games are at roughly 1pm and 4pm (if necessary).
"Winning our fourth straight outright title is really a great accomplishment considering the past history of the program and the number of obstacles we had to overcome this season," said 6th year head coach John Weber.
Weber was referring to the number of starters lost to injuries and the number of starters replaced due to graduation. Before the season even began the Muskies had to replace six positional starters due to graduation. They also lost their number two and number three pitchers in the rotation as well.
Things looked even worse when the Muskies lost projected starting centerfielder Paul Daniels (jr.) and returning starting shortstop Gabe Vollmer prior to the season. Daniels tore his ACL playing for the Lakeland Football Team and Vollmer (jr., hit .429 last season) had back surgery after he injured himself at his job last summer.
The list didn't get any shorter as starting leftfielder Mitch Heinemeyer (so.) tore his hamstring early in the season and had just 10 at bats before being declared out for the season. Then, number two pitcher Jon Aerts strained his shoulder in Florida and also pulled a quad muscle. He has pitched just 10 innings this season. Finally, Shane Hansen, the Muskies top returning hitter from last season missed 10 games due to a strained ligament in his hand that he hurt when he fell while running the bases.
This left only two returning starters from the 2003 season in Hansen (at third base) and second baseman/number one pitcher Steve Plucinski. Out of necessity, Hansen is now the starting leftfielder and Plucinski has moved to third base.
"We were forced to move guys around to fit the strengths and weaknesses of our team," said Weber. "This isn't how I envisioned this team to be, but it sure is neat how the guys have responded to the challenge and met opportunities."
Sophomore Tyler Schmitt has led the charge. Originally Schmitt was expected to start in rightfield where he could use his cannon of an arm. But Schmitt moved to centerfield after Daniels' injury. Schmitt is now leading the team with a .446 average and already has 62 hits (3rd highest total in school history). He leads the team in batting average, hits, RBI (30), stolen bases (14) and total bases (80), and is second in doubles (11) and runs (31).
"Tyler has been a pleasure to coach this season and he is getting better everyday," said Weber.
Senior shortstop Mike Bachar is another player who has responded to the challenge. Bachar replaced Vollmer and is currently hitting .317 with 12 doubles, 37 runs, 12 stolen bases and 28 walks (2nd highest in school history) from the leadoff spot.
"Mike had a great fall and he built off it," said Weber. "He came in with something to prove and he was so impressive that we were planning on moving Vollmer to third base if he could have returned from his back injury and then move Hansen to first base."
Others who have stepped up their game and took advantage of opportunities include junior Jon Bintner, and sophomore Brett Anschutz.
Bintner was a player who brought experience to the table as he was a back-up and part-time starter in his first two seasons. Primarily known for his glove, Bintner has held down the second base position and is hitting .289 with a steady overall game. After the early season injuries Weber plugged Bintner in for good at second and let Plucinski fill in where needed in a utility role before mostly playing third base. In fact, Plucinski has started this year at second, third, centerfield, and leftfield and also played first base.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the emergence of Anschutz as an offensive force. Anschutz took advantage of junior varsity games where he went on a tear forcing the coaches to take a look at him on the varsity level. He has responded by hitting .393 with 4 HR's, 4 2B's and 19 RBI in just 61 at bats. Anschutz has also filled in where needed on the defensive end by playing third, leftfield, rightfield and first base.
"Brett has really showcased his ability and we sure are looking forward to having him around for two more years," said Weber. "He also has the ability to be a fine pitcher in the future."
Other players who Weber expected to step up after earning starting opportunities include junior first baseman/catcher Mike Gappa (.308, 6 2B's 18 RBI), sophomore catcher Matt Andrews (.320, 2 HR's, 5 2B's 11 RBI), and junior first baseman Brian Swanson (.314, 3 HR's 15 RBI). Add to that the emergence of sophomore first baseman Justin Petrack (.360, 4HR's 12 RBI) and freshman outfielder Brett Nelson (.304, 5 2B's, 9 RBI) and the whole line-up has really started to gel.
"It's taken us longer than usual to come up with somewhat of a set line-up," said Weber. "But I think they all like it that their number could be called on at any time to produce in a clutch situation. Everyday it's someone else and we've truly received production one through nine in our lineup."
Lakeland's pitching staff has been strong with a good mix of veterans and youth. The team currently has a 4.33 ERA with 284 K's and just 123 walks in 307.2 innings.
Plucinski has performed well again despite his hard-luck 3-5 record. He leads the team with a 2.68 ERA and 84 strikeouts while allowing only 21 walks in 57 innings. Plucinski is currently 3rd in the nation in strikeouts per nine innings pitched (13.7). Opponents are hitting just .228 against him and he has been nearly unhittable in his last four starts. In fact, he threw a no-hitter verses MSOE earlier this year.
"In my opinion, Steve should be drafted this year and have a chance at a professional career," said Weber.
Senior pitcher Dan Rauwerdink is another veteran who has continued to pitch well. He is currently 4-2 with a 4.08 ERA and has struck out 40 in 53 innings while walking just eight batters.
"Dan is a great leader for our program and is a veteran with big game experience," said Weber.
Three freshman pitchers have also stepped up for the Muskies. Curt Hendricks is 3-4 with a 4.42 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 53 innings. Mike Rauwerdink, Dan's brother, is 4-2 with a 4.03 ERA and has 32 strikeouts in 29 innings. Finally, John Lackinger is 1-2 with a 5.13 ERA and has struck out 23 in 26.1 innings.
"All three have done a fine job and have gained experience throughout the year," said Weber.
Relievers Jared Neuman (0-1, 1.10 ERA, 13 K's, 16.1 IP), Adam Hablewitz and Doug Mogensen have bolstered the pitching staff.
The Muskies will look to earn their third straight NCAA bid with a tournament
victory, becoming only one of three teams in the state of Wisconsin to have
this opportunity (Carthage and Ripon).