As the Coleman baseball team walked out of Fox Cities Stadium after last year’s WIAA state tournament concluded, the Cougars players and coaches were conflicted.
They were brimming with pride in making only the second state appearance in program history, but also disappointed knowing how close they were to bringing a state championship with them.
Trailing against Winnebago Lutheran in the Division 3 semifinals, the Cougars scratched across five runs in the seventh inning to a take a two-run lead before the Vikings tied the game in the bottom of the frame and won 7-6 in eight innings.
The following day, Winnebago Lutheran beat Pardeeville for the title while Coleman was left to ponder what might have been.
“You knew you had the opportunity to win,” said Cougars coach Kent Casper, in his 17th year. “That bitterness inside knowing that you had the lead in the seventh inning and it ended up having to go extra innings and losing that game just stayed with them. That’s what it was, and from there that was the goal — we want to get back here.”
Coleman followed the setback with the most dominant year in program history, as the Cougars (26-1) will take a 26-game winning streak into Wednesday’s D4 state semifinal against Pittsville (18-6).
The Cougars, who dropped down a division this year, rolled through the Marinette-Oconto Conference before punching their ticket back to state with last Thursday’s 3-2 win over second-ranked Rosholt in eight innings in the sectional finals.
Before Coleman’s season took off, however, it started with a 4-3 non-conference loss to Freedom, which made the team reevaluate itself.
The Cougars responded with a season for the ages, outscoring opposing teams 262-42 and allowing only four runs in 10 conference games.
The effort began on the hill with junior pitchers Mason Mergener and Derek Marquardt, who combined to go 19-0 with 126 strikeouts and a 0.52 earned-run average through 25 games.
Mergener was the pitcher of record during last year’s state loss to Winnebago Lutheran and wants nothing more than avenge that defeat.
“It showed us anything can happen, really,” said Mergener, who batted .558 with 31 RBIs this season. “Coming back from a big deficit to going ahead to losing in extras, it just shows you that once you’re down there anything can happen.”
Seven of the team’s 15 varsity players are seniors, and the team enters state batting a D4-best .430 with 238 runs scored. Leading that group are Mitch Champagne (.568 batting average), Jake Engels (.515) and Mike Mergener (.481), Mason’s older brother.
Along with Mike’s twin, Mitch, the three Mergeners have a rich history with Coleman baseball. Their father, Bruce, coached his sons and many of the team’s players in Little League.
Many also wrestled for a Cougars program that this year won its third consecutive D3 team state title and ninth overall under Casper’s brother, Kevin.
If Coleman wants to take home its first baseball state title, it must go through Pittsville and likely top-ranked Greenwood (25-0).
To the team’s players, the competition really doesn’t matter. The only focus Coleman’s seniors have is to bring home one more state title before their high-school careers are over.
“Naturally, you just want what you didn’t get,” said Mike Mergener, a shortstop who will play baseball at UW-Oshkosh next year. “Last year, I think there’s a few of us who were happy for getting there, but now that we got there, our goal wasn’t to get there, it’s to take it.”