A late start to the 2018 high school baseball season wreaked havoc across the state and it made for a few oddities this season.
Lakeland Union High School started the season well, going 2-1 in a trio of games played in Mauston during April. The only problem was the Thunderbirds went 16 days without playing a game.
When the season resumed, Lakeland struggled, dropping 10 of 11 games, including seven of its first eight Great Northern Conference games.
The T-Birds were able to pull it together, reeling off wins in eight of their next nine games heading into the WIAA Division 2 Regional Semifinals.
Inconsistency showed again, however, as Lakeland was blanked 12-0 by Mosinee to end the season.
"It was kind of a tale of two seasons. It's hard to put a measuring stick on those first three games we played down in Mauston," LUHS head coach Mike Wilhelm said. "They were so early and then we took two weeks and had to play games again. That's really out of the ordinary for us and something we had to deal with. To start off with a team that made it state last year and then made it to state this year and a team that made it to a sectional final in the first week of conference play was a rough start to our season, but we rebounded after that. Their grit and mental attitude that was brought to the ballpark everyday was commended."
Lakeland struggled mightily at the plate during its losing streak, while also battling errors in the field as well.
The T-Birds didn't boast any high-velocity pitchers, but for most of the season they got consistent efforts on the mound.
Once the bats began to heat up - starting at the T-Bird Invite - the season took a turn for the better. They went from averaging 2.2 runs per game during the losing skid, to putting up 10.7 per game during the winning streak.
The charge was led by a trio of seniors in Jamie Slavinsky, Gunnar Weitz and Caleb Menzia.
Slavinsky, who was named second-team All-GNC, hit a scorching .576 in his final 10 games, adding 16 RBI and 15 runs.
Weitz was also a second-team All-GNC pick and hit .472 in his final 10 games, with eight RBI and 16 runs.
Menzia was an honorable mention choice at two different positions after driving in 10 runs in his final 10 games, including a home run to invoke the mercy rule in the first playoff game against Tomahawk.
"I think the key was us coaches saying, 'We believe in you,'" Wilhelm said. "We believe in what we're doing, we trust the process, we believed that they were talented enough to rebound. I think getting them to believe that and to believe in themselves and to know that we went through a rough patch in the season, but that happens. That happens in baseball all the time."
It's hard not to wonder how differently the season would have played out if all GNC games weren't doubleheaders.
Of the 18 GNC doubleheaders played, 15 ended with sweeps. Playing games separately may have nullified momentum from the first game or changed pitching rotations.
"It might've been different," Wilhelm said. "We might not rely on guys that don't normally pitch for us. We had to put guys in a position to pitch that were uncomfortable with that. As a coaching staff, we did a pretty good job with making them as comfortable as possible with throwing bullpens and in practice and things like that, but it's hard to replicate game situations in practice."
Wilhelm believes Lakeland has the talent to be a top three team in the conference next year with the return of Parker Biertzer, Tate Olson, Brandon Boh, Michael Campbell and others.
Getting to that point is a matter of putting in the work prior to next season.
"In the winter we have to have guys willing to put in the time, put in the work and be ready to go in March," Wilhelm said. "We can't come in on March 20 and say we're going to get in shape, get better and then go play a baseball game. We've got to do it six months before the season starts."
Lakeland finished the season 11-12.
Nick Sabato may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter@NickSabatoLT.