E-S baseball ends season with ‘surreal’ feat of school’s first state championship

Above: Eleva-Strum High School baseball coach CJ Christianson celebrated with fans moments after the Cardinals won the Division Four state championship last Thursday.

Below: Members of the Eleva-Strum High School baseball team took their turn with the state championship trophy. The 11-1 win over Solon Springs/Northwood marked the first state title in program history.          (Times photographs by Benjamin Pierce)

            Senior catcher Jake Bjerke threw for an out at first base in last Thursday’s WIAA Division Four state championship game at Neuroscience Group Field at Fox City Stadium in Grand Chute. The Cardinals defeated Solon Springs/Northwood 11-1 to win the program’s first state title.            (Times photograph by Benjamin Pierce)

Before the Eleva-Strum High School baseball team stepped onto Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute for the WIAA Division Four state championship game last Thursday, they were prepared for a tight-scoring, emotional final game.

Coach CJ Christianson told his players their job was simple. It didn’t matter how they got there, what the score was or who was going to step up. 

They just had to find a way.

“It doesn’t have to be pretty, you just gotta win. It doesn’t matter if we’ve got six errors as long as you win. Just need that one extra run, so find a way, believe in yourself, stay together,” Christianson said of his message to the team.

Finding their way didn’t take long–the Cardinals hit through their entire batting order in the bottom of the first inning, exploding for seven runs on four hits to take control in what ended as an 11-1 win over Solon Springs/Northwood and the first state title in program history.

A Jake Bjerke double scored Brady Nichols to open the scoring on Thursday, and senior Tyler Webb doubled Eleva-Strum’s lead in the next at-bat on an RBI single from Calvin Barneson. Alex Anderson hit a single moments later to make it 4-0, and the Cardinals scored three more times before the inning ended to seize a 7-0 advantage through one inning.

“It did not feel real,” Webb said of the team’s start. “The dugout was so loud, the stands were so loud, the community was backing us the whole time. So yeah, to bat through the order in the first was crazy. That’s something I didn’t see coming.”

Eleva-Strum drew walks in their first two at-bats of the second inning before wild throws and more offense pushed the top-seeded Cardinals’ advantage to 11-0. The Cardinals finished with six hits from six different players.

“We haven’t been in this position for probably close to a month,” Christianson said of being ahead by that many runs. “Keep adding, that was a big thing. We gotta keep adding and can’t lay down. Definitely kept the pressure off, which I needed. Just happy with these guys. They did everything they needed to do.”

Webb, who was pulled from the mound midway through Tuesday’s dramatic state semifinal victory, returned as the starting pitcher for Eleva-Strum on Thursday. The UW-Eau Claire commit responded to an off performance on Tuesday with one of his best of the season in the championship.

Webb threw all five innings for the Cardinals, restricting Solon Springs/Northwood to three hits while collecting six strikeouts and three walks.

“I think it was a little bit both physical and mental. Today I was able to just have everything working again,” Webb said. “Tuesday, the curveball wasn’t working as well and the fastball didn’t have quite as much velocity on it. And today I got in the bullpen, I felt a lot better and everything seemed to work.”

Dylan Taggart scored Solon Springs/Northwood’s lone run in the top of the second inning after an RBI single from Blaise Kidder.

Both Christianson and senior Carter Gunderson described winning the program’s first state title as “surreal”.

Gunderson said the team talked about the need to be cleaner on offense and having more fight at the plate after Tuesday’s close win. Though he said the team had faith in each other, even the players admitted they did not expect such a lopsided start against a Solon Springs/Northwood team (19-2 record) that had one loss this season entering the championship game.

“We trust each other in that dugout. There’s no more brotherhood of a team than us and no more connected team than us,” Gunderson said.

Multiple players, including Webb and Gunderson, let tears fall after earning the final out of the fifth inning to win the state title. Both said the program’s first title is as much about the community as it is about them.

Eleva-Strum ends the year with a 23-8 record and a state title after falling one game short of the state tournament in 2023.

“It’s everything. … It’s been a long time coming, and to make it so close last year, they (community) came back, they cheered a little louder this year maybe,” Gunderson said. “We got over the hump, we made it here after a rough start to the game Tuesday, but we battled back and stayed together. And that all starts with the community here. They have our backs on everything and they believe in us. … That’s surreal.”

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