Baseball and a father’s love

Eleva-Strum state title meant more for Carter Gunderson

         Recent Eleva-Strum High School graduate Carter Gunderson laughed with coach CJ Christianson after reaching the basepaths in last Thursday’s WIAA Division Four state baseball championship game at Neuroscience Group Field at Fox City Stadium in Grand Chute. Gunderson played a crucial role in the Cardinals’ state title and said his love for the sport stems from his father, Ryan.             (Times photograph by Benjamin Pierce)

Five minutes after the Eleva-Strum High School baseball team claimed its first state championship in program history, senior Carter Gunderson received a phone call that meant more than any other ‘Congrats’ he could ever receive.

Gunderson’s father, Ryan, was too excited to start with a ‘Hello’. Instead, the first words were congratulating his son and telling him how proud he was.

The 2024 WIAA Division Four state semifinal and championship last week were the first of Carter’s games that Ryan has seen in six years. Ryan was sentenced in 2020 to 15 years in prison for a 2018 domestic incident that ended with him being shot by police officers.

Carter was 12 at the time.

“I stayed up a little late thinking about it,” Carter said of knowing his dad was watching him. “It was awesome knowing that he’s going to be able to see this for the first time in a long time, and I think that really sparked motivation in me to have a good tournament. Every time I was up there I could feel him with me telling me, ‘Hey, this is you. You’re on a big stage, you’ve got to compete now.’”

“I could feel his presence with me the whole time.”

Growth through baseball

Baseball has always provided a bond for Carter and Ryan. The younger Gunderson first fell in love with the sport at his grandma’s house when he found a wooden bat and his father started throwing him a Wiffle Ball. That escalated into Tee Ball, and Gunderson was hooked.

In elementary school, Ryan often had the pair’s baseball gloves ready to head to the field when Carter was done with school. Pitching became a strong interest for Carter, so Ryan watched videos and read books on the topic to help his son learn.

“My dad is the reason I love the game the way I love it and the reason I play it the way I play it,” Carter said.

When Ryan was arrested, Carter said losing his personal coach and biggest supporter was difficult.

Eleva-Strum coach CJ Christianson watched Gunderson play in his youth and occasionally saw the Gunderson duo working on Carter’s game in the park. When Christianson took over as head coach before Carter’s sophomore season, Carter told his coach he wanted to play college baseball.

Gunderson wasn’t fully committed to schoolwork at the time, Christianson said, and he didn’t see as much extra work outside of practice anymore.

Gunderson kept prodding, asking at an open gym session about the day-to-day of college baseball. Christianson thought it was a good time to spook his player as motivation, telling Gunderson he didn’t have good enough grades and wasn’t working hard enough to make college a reality.

From that conversation forward, Gunderson’s approach flipped.

Gunderson is “the goofy kid who makes everybody laugh,” his coach said, but the player’s biggest growth has come in his maturity.

“His maturity level when I got around him as a sophomore was very low,” a laughing Christianson said. “He’s still the goofy kid, knows how to have fun and keeps everybody loose, but when he needs to turn it (maturity) on, he does.”

“He went from a low, low GPA to student awards. He increased it a ton, which where he was I didn’t know if he’d ever be able to get to this point. The work ethic, all that stuff was good, but I think his maturity really drove all that.”

‘He holds everything together’

Gunderson’s talents are visible on the field. The 2024 graduate delivered the game-winning double in the state semifinal and earned the win on the mound in relief. He is set to continue his baseball career at North Iowa Area Community College next year.

The 6-foot-3, 150-pound pitcher is throwing 88 mph as a senior with what his coach calls a “whippy” arm.

Multiple college coaches, including at the Division I level, called Christianson to ask about the senior. Christianson said Gunderson could be throwing in the 96 mph range by this time next year and believes he could develop into a high-level college player.

Christianson called Gunderson Eleva-Strum’s “glue”, saying he loves the player as family.

“I sometimes tell colleges too, people follow him left or right. It doesn’t matter what way he goes, people are going to follow Carter. … He holds everything together. Yesterday before the game he walked in the dugout and he was like, ‘What’s everyone all nervous about? It’s just a baseball game.’ Everybody loosened up after he said it. He’s just a special kid.”

One example came in this year’s playoffs.

Noah Martinson, the team’s sophomore third baseman, was struggling with fielding errors, Christianson said, and Gunderson pushed the sophomore to improve in practice.

When Bangor loaded the bases in their regional final playoff game after an error by Martinson, Gunderson called a timeout with the umpire and walked over to Martinson to give him a hug and tell him not to worry about it.

After that win, Martinson was “perfect” the rest of the playoffs, Christianson said.

“That one will stick with me probably for the rest of my life,” the coach said. “He called time, went over there. I’ve never seen that before.”

Christianson said Gunderson has made him a better coach because Gunderson is always seeking more information on the finer details of the game and its strategies.

“He’s a special kid. He’s not afraid of anything, that’s for sure. He might come across as that kid that doesn’t care or is too free or easygoing, however you want to put it. … The smile isn’t cockiness, the kid just loves life. He’s enjoying every moment.”

Carter and Ryan still talk every day over the phone or through visits. Carter said he feels his father’s love even when he can’t be around physically.

Carter said their shared love for baseball — and each other — has made them both better.

“I’m always going to make time for my dad no matter what. He’s a very, very special person in my life and I appreciate all he’s done for me when he was present and even now when he’s not. I know he went through struggles, but that really doesn’t define him as a person,” Carter said.

“Everybody makes mistakes and he made one and that happens, but I really feel like he’s persevered as a man and he’s going to come out when he does a much better person.”

 

 

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