Stevens Point Area Senior High baseball coach Kraig Terpstra was in a reflective mood as midnight approached Tuesday.
He recalled a road trip to a University of Wisconsin men’s basketball game during the winter with SPASH boys basketball coach Scott Anderson, who was perusing a preseason high school baseball publication.
Anderson pointed out how the Panthers were picked to finish second or third in the Wisconsin Valley Conference, and he asked his traveling companion if that made him mad.
“I told Scott, ‘No, I’m glad we’re being underestimated,'” Terpstra said. “I thought we could be good, and ever since that doubleheader in La Crosse (10-7 and 5-4 losses to the Raiders in early April), we’ve gained confidence and played better and better.”
Good enough to earn a chance to win the fourth state championship in school history, and the first since 1989 tonight.
SPASH will face defending WIAA Division 1 state champion Sun Prairie in the state title game at 6 p.m. at Fox Cities Stadium.
Optimism abounds, and why not.
The Panthers are fresh off a convincing 14-5 win over top-ranked Bay Port in the semifinals Tuesday night — a team that had not lost to a team from Wisconsin — to extend their winning streak to 17.
“Last year we went to state and came up short and that helps you want it more, especially being seniors,” said senior third baseman Sterling King, looking back at a 4-3 loss to Sun Prairie in nine innings in the state semifinals.
And seniors with a championship pedigree.
When junior right-hander Austin Schulfer was having some issues with his command after the Panthers had just put up eight runs in the top of the fourth inning to grab a 9-2 lead he received plenty of sage advice.
“You had a captain of a conference championship hockey team (Matt Dufresne) to settle him down. Oh and then there was a captain of a championship football team (Eric Zelhofer) talking to him,” Terpstra said.
That type of senior leadership could come in handy tonight with the ultimate prize at stake for SPASH.
There was no mention of revenge or payback from the extra-inning loss to the Cardinals just a year earlier. Beating the defending champs to bring hold the gold trophy would be gratifying enough.
SPASH also knows it won’t be easy to beat the Cardinals.
“They’re a very good team and an extremely confident team. Teams can be intimidated by them. We will need to stay composed all the time because they try to get you to lose focus,” the SPASH coach said.
“I think it will be a battle and not be low-scoring, but I like the pitchers we have ready.”
After waiting 23 years for a state title, the Panthers are ready to do some celebrating.
Reaching the championship game also had him feeling nostalgic about the last time he was coaching in a state title game — a memory he thinks might serve him and his team well tonight.
“I remember back to 2000 when our girls basketball team made it to the state championship game and how we were just ecstatic we made it there,” Terpstra said. “One of my regrets since then is how I was glad just to be there.
“Trust me, that is not going to be the case this time,” he added. “I’m going to do everything I can to push, claw and motivate these guys to get one more win.”