Fifteen miles is all that separates the tiny communities of Oakfield and Rosendale.
It takes about five minutes to drive through each town. A few gas stations, restaurants and the local parks and schools are the most notable landmarks. To someone traveling through the area, they would simply be a couple more spots to pay attention to the speed limit.
For prep softball fans, the neighboring rural communities take on much greater significance. Certainly what would be considered two of the premier small-school softball programs in the state, Oakfield and Laconia — serving the Rosendale-Brandon School District — have reached the WIAA state tourney a combined nine times since 2008. But even the most knowledgeable of observers may not have foreseen what each was able to accomplish this year.
To think that Laconia and Oakfield would be playing in state title games in 2015 — that didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Both did it in 2014. Now, to imagine that an afternoon bike ride is all that sits between the homes of two state players of the year, that’s a bit more eye-opening. Rarely is the state’s top softball award given to two players from the same district, let alone the same county.
Yet this year that’s exactly the case as Laconia’s Kayla Schwebke and Oakfield’s McKaela Ryan were recently named the 2015 Wisconsin Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association Division 3 and Division 4 players of the year, respectively — an indication of the incredible seasons the two players had and an indictment on the strength of the area prep softball scene.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Schwebke and Ryan will be able to add another honor to their state player of the year selections — 2015 Action Reporter Media All-Area Softball Co-Players of the Year.
Schwebke and Ryan are joined on the all-area first team by a number of outstanding players from an area that had four teams — Laconia, Oakfield, Waupun and Lomira — qualify for the state tournament. Waupun catcher and second-team all-state selection Taylor Brown finished a close runner-up behind Schwebke and Ryan for player of the year honors, having the type of season that, in nearly any other year, would have been good enough to earn her the nod.
Laconia’s Payton Kastenschmidt, Lomira’s Lauren Luedtke, St. Mary’s Springs’ Kelli Schrauth, Waupun’s Kyra Verheyen, Oakfield’s Madelyn Ryan and Mayville’s Libby Schellpfeffer and Mattie Klingenmeyer also made the first team.
To put in perspective how rare it is to have two state players of the year live so close to one another, especially in small towns outside of the talent-rich metro areas of the state, one would need to look back at previous players of the year. Since 2011, when the WFSCA first began naming players of the year in each division, no one’s even close to the Schwebke/Ryan proximity. The closest came in 2012, when Chippewa Falls’ Evie Schaller and Baldwin-Woodville’s Abby Klopp were named D1 and D2 players of the year, respectively, and those two schools are 53 miles apart.
“I think it’s awesome that we have such strong competition in such close proximity to each other,” Laconia coach Scott Ritzema said. “To have elite players like that, all within this close area — hopefully we’ll continue to have a strong presence in our area and continue to have a strong presence down in Madison, too.”
Ritzema’s star pitcher, Schwebke, made her presence felt throughout the state, helping lead the Spartans to the WIAA Division 3 state title this season. As the losing pitcher in Laconia’s 1-0 defeat to Arcadia in the 2014 state championship, Schwebke returned with a sophomore season for the ages in 2015.
Compiling a 29-2 record with an almost unthinkable 0.45 ERA and 388 strikeouts, Schwebke was a machine — more like The Terminator, actually — in the circle. Using a fastball, curveball, riseball and changeup, Schwebke located her pitches with pinpoint precision to strike out opposing hitters at an alarming rate.
In her eyes, that location was led to her jump after a sensational freshman season.
“I worked on my pitches a lot more, to hit my spots,” Schwebke said. “I knew that the teams would be getting better from seeing me the year before. I knew I had to hit all my spots and just work harder and become a little faster, too.”
In the D3 state championship against Poynette, Schwebke allowed a run on six hits with 12 strikeouts as the Spartans pulled out a 2-1 victory over the Pumas for their first title, redemption after falling short the year before.
With a year of varsity experience under Schwebke’s belt, Ritzema thought that familiarity with the coaching staff and teammates, as well as competitive drive, ultimately led to her success in 2015.
“To have your high school team chemistry and you kind of know what to expect and having the relationship with me and having another year to get to know me, that definitely helps,” he said. “I think, too, with us coming up short last year, she’s a really competitive kid. I think that motivated her to step it up.”
While Schwebke had high expectations for herself and the team, with the goal of winning state, she was taken aback that she’d accomplished all she had as only a sophomore. Flyway Conference Player of the Year, conference champion, state POY, state champion — that’s a resume fit for a senior, not someone barely old enough to own a driver’s license.
“I didn’t think I would have done all this by this year,” Schwebke said. “I figured throughout all my four years, I would hopefully get all this, but to already get all of these awards is great.”
Ritzema and the Spartans still have another two years with Schwebke and will look to take advantage of what could be a once-in-a-generation pitcher. Laconia’s coach is just living in the moment.
“I’m just enjoying the ride because I might not ever experience something like this again,” Ritzema said.
For Ryan, the ride is over. But a ride it was.
After leading Oakfield to the WIAA Division 4 state title as a junior in 2014, and recording the win in the championship game, Ryan was even better her senior season.
She put together a 21-4 record in the circle with a 1.64 ERA and 176 strikeouts and was just as good, if not better, at the plate — hitting .532 with nine doubles, three triples, a home run, 50 runs scored and 47 RBIs as the No. 3 hitter. Ryan was the do-it-all leader behind a fairly young Oaks squad that won yet another Trailways North Conference championship and advanced all the way to the D4 state title game.
Like Schwebke, Ryan is a spot pitcher and has made her living on the corners throughout her career.
“She’s, in my idea, a true pitcher,” Oakfield coach Mike Urban said. “There might be some kids that throw a little bit harder than her. McKaela has a good idea of how to set up hitters by staying ahead on the count and that stuff, wear to work as far as if you’re ahead of hitters or what you’ve got to do if you’re behind hitters. She’s what I would call an old-fashioned true pitcher. She’s not somebody who throws hard. There’s a purpose for everything she does with her pitches.”
Most expected Ryan’s contributions from the circle. Her bat, as good as it was, was maybe a tad underrated. Yet she was Oakfield’s best hitter all season long. With an aggressive approach at the plate, Ryan struck out just once in 30 games.
“I’m a really aggressive hitter,” Ryan said. “If I get a strike, I’ll swing right away. That’s not always a good thing, but I put the ball in play a lot. I don’t really strike out. I had one strike out this year, so I’m always putting the ball in play, which I think was effective. I could then either get a hit or beat something out, making the defense stay on their toes.”
Unfortunately Ryan didn’t get the fairytale ending to her career, despite one of her best pitching performances of the 2015 season.
In the D4 state title game against Stevens Point Pacelli, Ryan allowed only five hits to a powerful Cardinals lineup but a sixth-inning run was enough to send Oakfield to a 1-0 defeat. Even weeks later, the loss still stings for Ryan, especially because the Oaks had their fair share of opportunities to win the game.
“Definitely bitter right now about the loss,” she said. “I think when I grow up and look back, I’ll obviously realize that it was a huge accomplishment but that’s going to take some time to get over.”
Winner of two state titles and this year’s D4 state POY, Ryan leaves Oakfield as one of the better players in the program’s storied history. Urban credits that legacy to the work Ryan put in on and off the field.
“I’m just very, very proud of her,” Urban said. “Everything that she’s accomplished and that stuff. I told her I was very privileged to be a small part of what she’s accomplished in softball. You can give girls or boys the tools to work with, but then they have to put in the work to accomplish where they want to go. There’s one thing I can guarantee: there’s not anyone that’s going to outwork McKaela Ryan.”
As Ryan heads off to UW-Oshkosh with the goal of one day becoming a nurse anesthetist, she’ll remember her prep softball career fondly and will continue to use the mindset that led to so much success on the field.
“It’s been a really good four years,” Ryan said. “I didn’t think that I’d be where I am today coming in as a freshman. If you put your mind to something, you can accomplish anything and I’m going to take that attitude as I go on into the rest of my life.”
Sam Oleson: (920) 907-7930, email@example.com or follow on Twitter @sam_olesonFDL
2015 Action Reporter Media All-Area Softball Team
Kayla Schwebke, Soph., Laconia
McKaela Ryan, Senior, Oakfield
Taylor Brown, Senior, Waupun
Payton Kastenschmidt, Soph., Laconia
Libby Schellpfeffer, Senior, Mayville
Lauren Luedtke, Soph., Lomira
Kelli Schrauth, Senior, St. Mary’s Springs
Mattie Klingenmeyer, Junior, Mayville
Kyra Verheyen, Junior, Waupun
Madelyn Ryan, Senior, Oakfield
Haylee Arroyo, Junior, Mayville
Megan Andes, Junior, Lomira
Kira Krueger, Junior, Mayville
Kayla Jacob, Senior, Laconia
Megan Van Ruiswyk, Fresh., Waupun
Alyssa Sabel, Junior, Oakfield
Becca O’Brien, Soph., Campbellsport
Shania Schibbelhut, Senior, Fond du Lac
Haley Cole, Junior, Lomira
Emily Peterson, Senior, Waupun
Campbellsport: Chey Renderman, Zoe Albert, Nicole Hepp, Ashley Emmer. Fond du Lac: Cheyenne Bonincontri, Caroline Wagner. Laconia: Mckayla Johnson, Morgan Tetzlaff. Lomira: Michaela Luedtke, Alyssa Luedtke, Carlee Boevers. Mayville: Claire Luebke, Cailie Pliner. North Fond du Lac: Janice Schwersinske, Kylie Rozenboom, Brooke Scott. Oakfield: Brianna Sabel, Michaela Kindler, MiKayla Newton, Karissa Ryan. St. Mary’s Springs: Alyssa Babler, Kenzie Waechter. Waupun: McKenna Keach, Yvette Navis, Nicole Gerber, Jasmyn Bensley, Taylor White, Mallory Uttech, Danielle Hopp. Winnebago Lutheran: Cassidy Williams, Jena Krueger, Cassie Krueger.