2024 Baseball Preview

Mother Nature may not cooperate, but baseball is ready to start

By Joe Peine
Posted 3/27/24

The Ellsworth Panthers will hit the ground running next week as they play three games over the course of five days in their first taste of 2024 competition.

Last season was one of growth for a …

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2024 Baseball Preview

Mother Nature may not cooperate, but baseball is ready to start


The Ellsworth Panthers will hit the ground running next week as they play three games over the course of five days in their first taste of 2024 competition.

Last season was one of growth for a Panthers team that finished with an overall record of 11-10 in a three-way tie for fourth place in the heart of the standings in the Middle Border Conference. Now going into his third season as skipper, Head Coach Brandon Voelker says he was happy with the progress the team made in his second year it marked the first winning season for the program since 2018.

“We continued to build on the season before when I took the head coaching role, which is a true testament to the kids and my assistant coaches. We went 1-1 in the playoffs, beating Prescott 5-3 in round 1 before eventually losing to Altoona in round 2 who were state qualifiers,” Voelker said. “We lost four seniors from last season, three of which were starters. Beyond that we will continue to be very young this season. We have a couple seniors that I expect to fill leadership roles, but we will really look for our juniors and sophomores to be the bulk of our varsity team.” 

Coach Voelker says that in order to compete for a conference championship this season they need to play together as a team and continue to build on the fundamentals they laid the groundwork for last season.

“I think that’s something that contributed to our success last season was the leadership we had from our seniors that really kept this group together. Additionally, our big focus has been the student part of the term student athlete. We implemented weekly grade reports last year with our kids knowing if they have a failing grade on a Friday they are not eligible for the next week. Last year we did not have a single kid that had a failing grade at any point, and that to me meant a ton. We have a group of athletes that know they need to get it done in the classroom before we can focus on baseball.” 

Just like the MLB, pitchers and catchers were out practicing earlier this month ahead of the full team practices, which began last week.

“I have been very impressed with our focus from the older kids and how fast the younger kids have caught on to things,” Voelker said. “A lot of these guys have been doing work this offseason to ensure we are ready for this spring, which will be a huge benefit.”

From an organizational standpoint, the only other difference besides incoming and outgoing talent on the team is the addition of Owen Matzek to the coaching staff. He was a 2018 graduate and is one of the Panthers new assistants.

Ellsworth will host its home opener in game one of the season next Tuesday when they host Spooner at Summit Park at 4:30 p.m. They will then go on the road for a two-game set against Stanley-Boyd on Thursday at 5 p.m. and then against Saint Croix Falls on Saturday at 1 p.m.

River Falls

The River Falls Wildcats will start their season with a three-game slate of home games at First National Bank of River Falls Field on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday of next week.

The Wildcats are coming off a highly productive 2023 where they finished third in the Big Rivers Conference with an overall record of 18-7 and qualified for the Division 1 sectionals.

Even in the face of so much success, Head Coach Ryan Bishop says he still feels like they left some on the table.

“It was a very solid season to most standards, but to be honest, I didn't feel like we achieved what we were truly capable of last spring,” Bishop said. “Maybe that's an old coach with unrealistic expectations, or maybe an old coach who's seen players overachieve when they truly function as one unit playing for each other. Either way, that's something we will strive to improve on this season.”

Coach Bishop also says his goal for the season as they pursue both a conference and state championship is for everyone to be their absolute best self both on and off the field as a player and teammate.

“I guess that's what keeps us humbly putting one foot in front of the other in our pursuit for perfection. Perfection in what we can control, aside from what any scoreboard says,” Bishop said. “The scoreboard will take care of itself if we can take care of the controllables. Our coaching staff will do everything we can to help our players be their best self.”

With the regular season nearly here, it might surprise you to learn that the Wildcats have not finalized their rosters yet, but it’s a late season for the program this year, according to Bishop.

“It’s very odd. The school district moving spring break back a week this year really throws a kink into spring sports. We have no choice but to start nonconference games next week since conference games start right away the following week,” Bishop said. “Technically, we had practice last week during spring break, however, we only had about a third of our total roster there. Which is why we don’t have our official tryouts and first full team practices until this week.”

The Wildcats will have some extra turnover this season too, which could add an extra wrinkle beyond the late start.

“We graduated 10 seniors, but we are returning a large group of varsity players from last year, which includes some of this year's 10 seniors,” Bishop said. “Natural leaders emerge as the season progresses. It's pretty easy for players to tell which teammates truly have their back in times of adversity.” 

Bishop says the key to winning in a competitive conference with so much quality pitching is to execute the fundamentals at a higher rate than the competition.

“We will have to do all the little things better and more consistently than the others to give ourselves a chance to win this league,” Bishop said. “It’s a new season with new opportunities, but it’s the same game. In a sport built around failure, the players that are able to focus on the next pitch will always have the best opportunities for success. And the team that has each other’s backs and picks each other up during those times of failure will always have the best opportunity for team success. It's a simple formula, for a complex game.” 

The season begins with a three-game home stand starting on Monday and Tuesday against Duluth Denfield and Tartan at 4:30 p.m. and then finishing on Thursday against Superior at 4 p.m.


The Prescott Cardinals will take the diamond for the first time this week when they host Hudson for their home opener at Firehall Field.

The Cardinals finished fourth in the Middle Border Conference last season with an overall record of 8-14. Head Coach Jeff Ryan says it wasn’t the season they were hoping for, but their record is a little misleading as well.

“We lost seven games by two runs or less, including three losses by a score of 1-0,” Ryan said. 

With some positive regression likely coming for the Cardinals, Ryan says they are returning most of their biggest playmakers, including 10 letterwinners.

“We lost four seniors to graduation, including all-conference honorable mention utility player Brady Block. However, we have three all-conference players returning including senior outfielder Nolan Thomley, senior pitcher Cullen Huppert, and junior infielder Barrett Temmers,” Ryan said. “We return a very deep pitching staff led by Huppert. Also expected to throw for us this year is senior Ian Leask, and juniors Cole Platson, Dain Pechacek, Will Rohl and Aidan Dorau. Sophomore Max Monteith is also expected to see some time on the mound.”

Coach Ryan says competing for a conference championship will be an uphill battle when looking at the high level of play in the Middle Border this season.

“The conference is extremely strong this year and is very pitching rich,” Ryan said. “Altoona is ranked #7 in Division 2 and advanced to the state tournament last year. They return five starters including three of their top pitchers. Baldwin-Woodville has both of their all-conference pitchers returning. St. Croix Central returns both pitchers and four all-conference players from a year ago as well.” 

In addition to the player turnover, the Cardinals coaching staff that includes 26-year veteran Ryan who was inducted into the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2019 will have a couple new members this season with the additions of 2022 alumnus Ben Rohl and Mason Bartsch. 

With games already on deck starting this week, there is some question of whether or not they will be able to play them as scheduled.

“It is always challenging to prepare for the fast-approaching season when Mother Nature isn’t cooperating. But we are no different than any other school, and we will be ready to go whenever the season starts,” Ryan said. 

The Middle Border Conference coaches have picked Altoona as the favorite. The Railroaders advanced to the WIAA Division 2 State Tournament last season and return five starters this spring. Baldwin-Woodville, Prescott, and St. Croix Central are expected to be the three teams chasing Altoona this spring, with Somerset being picked as the dark horse this season. 

The Cardinals’ 24-game season includes a very formidable non-conference schedule. Prescott will play Hudson, River Falls, Elk Mound, West Salem, and St. Croix Falls, all teams listed by the WBCA in the 2024 preseason state rankings. Prescott will field three teams this season and expect 42-45 players to compete on the diamond this spring. 

Game one of the 2024 season is tentatively lined up for Thursday in Prescott at Firehall Field against the Hudson Raiders. First pitch is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.

Spring Valley

The Spring Valley Cardinals will play their first baseball games of the season next week when they go on the road to Boyceville to face the Bulldogs on Monday and  return to host their home opener against the Elmwood-Plum City Wolves.

The Cardinals battled through a rebuilding year in 2023 having graduated seven seniors in 2022. Head Coach Brandon Walczak says their overall record doesn’t capture the progress they made as a team by season’s end.

“There wasn't a lot of varsity experience. Our team consisted of three seniors, three juniors and the rest were mainly freshmen that played, so we were raw,” Walczak said. “Yes, we finished 4-14, but we were coming together towards the end of the season. We won our first playoff game against Prairie Farm and lost our second game to Regis, which we held the lead or were tied the whole game until the fifth inning and ended up losing 13-3.”

Coach Walczak says last year pitching was a struggle for them with so many youth. The pitching struggled with giving out free passes as they allowed nearly twice as many walks (94) as hits (48).

“Those two numbers made it so that our team ERA was almost 11. It's very hard to give teams so many free bases a game and still try to stop them from scoring or out-scoring them,” Walczak said. “Last season was fairly disappointing, since we have had so many consecutive winning seasons. However, growing pains happen, and when you have that much turnover from a senior group and smaller numbers behind them to fill those spots, it makes it difficult.” 

This year figures to be different for the Cardinals squad who only lost three seniors in the offseason, and Walczak says they have guys waiting to fill those roles who have experience.

“We have a good group of seniors and juniors who are great leaders for the underclassmen. They have been putting in time getting ready to go for the upcoming season, and they are good role models for our younger guys,” Walczak said. “In order to be good at baseball, you have to focus on the fine details that go into not only understanding the game of baseball but how to compete at a high level on the field, at bat and on the mound.”  

Coach Walczak says pitching will be the key focus for them, as might be expected.

“We have around eight guys who I would have confidence putting out on the mound based on their experience and growth. The ability to throw strikes and competitive pitches will help us immensely,” Walczak said. “We will still have to play good situational, defensive baseball. I know that mistakes will happen, but having a short memory and moving on to the next opportunity will be beneficial for us. We will also have to stay competitive at the plate. We will be looking to try and put the ball in play with competitive at bats, understanding the zone and understanding what our job is at the plate.” 

With practices having just started last week, Walczak says the guys are mostly just trying to knock the rust off and get back into the swing of things.

“We have seen a lot of good things and improvements from last year that we are happy with. However, we need to maintain a competitive and challenging environment to keep the kids progressing on skills throughout the year,” Walczak said. “We have been able to get outside, which is nice for this time of year, but the upcoming forecast looks like it will put a damper on any hopes of continuing to go outside, so that's really frustrating.”

Still Walczak says he’s very optimistic about the impending season.

“I feel like we have a lot of returning players with experience and they are ready to show and prove what they can do on the field,” Walczak said. “If we can play our traditional type of baseball by playing smart, minimizing errors, especially compounding errors, throw competitive pitches and be aggressive and selective at the plate, I believe that we can have an excellent season and get back to competing at the high level that we are used to.” 

The Cardinals’ first opportunities for that come next week when they play at Boyceville on Monday and at home on Thursday. First pitch for both games is at 5 p.m.

Elmwood-Plum City

The Elmwood-Plum City Wolves begin their season with a two-game slate starting on Monday at home against the Elk Mound Mounders, continuing on Thursday at Spring Valley against the Cardinals.

It was an inauspicious season for the Wolves last year as they finished the season at the bottom of the Dunn-St. Croix Conference with an overall record of 1-15 in Head Coach Cory Brathall’s second season with the team.

“We graduated three seniors last season from our 2023 campaign,” Brathall said. “We are excited to kick off the 2024 season as we return a lot of experience that has took its lumps on the varsity level the past couple seasons.”

For a small program, roster size is a determining factor to how competitive a team will be, and that seems to be a strength for the Wolves going into the next season.

“Numbers are up as we have 26 kids out for baseball which is a high number for a program our size,” Barthall said. “This will provide added depth in all positions and will allow us for the first time in many years to play a full JV schedule, which will also allow us to develop talent. We are looking forward to being more competitive and winning more games this season.”

The Wolves will get their first 2024 action against Elk Mound in their home opener on Monday and continuing on Thursday on the road at Spring Valley. First pitch is at 5 p.m. for both games. 

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