Gunderson’s big moment leads Eleva-Strum baseball to chance at D4 state title

Championship scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday in Appleton

Eleva-Strum senior Carter Gunderson (left) was cheerfully mobbed by classmate Justin Becker moments after the Cardinals won a WIAA Division Four state semifinal behind a game-winning hit from Gunderson, who also pitched four scoreless innings in the 3-2 win over Pacelli.    (Times photograph by Benjamin Pierce)

Eleva-Strum sophomore Calvin Barneson made contact with a pitch during last Tuesday’s WIAA Division Four state semifinal game against Pacelli. Eleva-Strum won the battle of the Cardinals 3-2 to advance to the state championship game on Thursday.    (Times photograph by Benjamin Pierce)

With the top of the Eleva-Strum High School baseball team’s batting order due up in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s WIAA Division Four state semifinal, the Cardinals embraced an opportunity with their season hanging in the balance at Appleton’s Fox Cities Stadium.

Eleva-Strum, the top-seeded team in the D4 field this week, trailed Pacelli 2-1 through 5 1/2 innings. Pacelli earned consecutive outs against Brady Nichols and Justin Becker to open the sixth inning before Eleva-Strum’s depth showed.

Senior Tyler Webb hit a two-out double, and classmate Tyler Bjerke drew a walk in the next at-bat to keep the game alive. Senior Carter Gunderson delivered a crushed fly ball to the outfield fence, a double that scored courtesy runner Brody Hanson and Bjerke to give the Cardinals a 3-2 lead.

That score held as final to send Eleva-Strum to the state championship game, set for 9 a.m. Thursday against Northwood/Solon Springs.

“I went up to the plate all three at-bats thinking like, ‘Hey don’t try to do too much.’ But especially in that last at-bat, runners on first and second, all I really needed was something through the infield,” Gunderson said after Tuesday’s win. … “(The pitch) came back up-and-in fastball, and honestly normally I don’t swing at that pitch, but I was on cloud nine. Adrenaline was just kicking in. I saw that pitch and immediately knew I wasn’t going to miss it. It jumped off the bat and just flew.”

Pacelli started strong on Tuesday with two runs on three hits in the first inning. Pitcher Keltin Opper restricted Eleva-Strum to one hit through three innings before Eleva-Strum coach CJ Christianson’s team found offense in the fourth.

Gunderson hit a single to get on base and reached home on a Calvin Barneson hit, cutting Eleva-Strum’s deficit to 2-1.

Christianson was optimistic when Gunderson approached the plate for his final at-bat in the sixth inning despite Pacelli only needing one more out to end the threat.

“Really confident,” Christianson said of his feelings as Gunderson entered the batters’ box. “He’s been really good. After he had his big hit he came off and said a couple words, something along the lines with ‘I’m the best in the state.’ His confidence is through the roof, which it should be, and he plays on emotion. … when you’ve got a guy like that running on emotion, let him go.”

Gunderson hit 3-for-3 for the Cardinals, finishing with a score and two RBI. He also pitched the final four innings, surrendering two hits and no runs.

The senior entered the game in the fourth as Pacelli had runners on first and second base with no outs, a situation he escaped without allowing a score.

Being at the state tournament left no need to be nervous, Gunderson said.

“I’ve been playing this game for a long time, and (there’s) really no reason to get nervous now,” he said. "We did the hard part getting here and now it’s just have fun and keep competing. When I came in I thought to myself, ‘Hey, let’s not bend over here and die. Let’s work and make them earn it.’”

Thursday presents Eleva-Strum its first chance at a state title in baseball, and the atmosphere on Tuesday showed the team that its community believes in them, multiple Cardinals said.

“The love I have for this game is a huge amount, and the love I have for the guys is a huge amount,” Gunderson said. “I knew this was a huge deal for me, and not only me but everyone. Cardinal fans were packed today and we appreciate that so much. We feed off that, especially late when we’re down 2-1 and we come off the field in the top of the sixth and everyone is cheering. … I really just went up there and tried to cut all the thinking out. But at the end of the day, I’m just happy to do it for the guys and not just us but the community.”

Against Northwood/Solon Springs, the Cardinals will need to be “sharper” on the base paths and find an offensive rhythm sooner than it did in the semifinal, according to the team’s coach.

Northwood/Solon Springs (19-1) has lost only one game in 2024. The team won its state semifinal over Johnson Creek by a 7-0 score on Tuesday.

Pitching will need to remain strong for Eleva-Strum, Christianson said, as his team has its focus on the gold state champion trophy.

“Guys are here for one thing. They want the gold one. The guys have said it before, we didn’t come down here for a silver at all. … They want the gold one. Obviously everyone wants it, but no one’s going to give it up, so we’ve got to go take it.”

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