New outlook, fresh talent were key ingredients in Cedar Grove-Belgium’s recipe for 2011 baseball success
MEMBERS OF THE Cedar Grove-Belgium baseball team that won a share of the Central Lakeshore Conference championship included (front row, from left) T.J. Obbink, Jim Simmelink, Zach Feind, Christian O’Donnell, Max Strehlow, (back row) manager Steph Ruppel, assistant coach Jarred Lucas, Darren Koopman, Josh Ruppel, Luke Kaat, Zach Paulson, assistant coach Nic Vrubley and head coach Mike Ruppel. Photo by Sam Arendt
The Cedar Grove-Belgium baseball team’s final game was hardly indicative of its body of work this season.imag
A shutout loss to perennial power West Bend West in a WIAA sectional semifinal game July 22 wasn’t how the Rockets wanted to bow out, but it’s hard not to marvel at what they accomplished and what may be still to come.
Cedar Grove-Belgium won a share of the Central Lakeshore Conference title for the first time in 30 years and scored a summer playoff victory for the first time since 1984.
What made the difference this time?
“It was our confidence and us coming together as a team,” junior Josh Ruppel, one of the Rockets’ top pitchers, said late in the season.
“We’re all having fun. We’re talking to each other. And winning’s always fun, too.”
Other players echoed those sentiments.
“We had a new coach (Mike Ruppel), and he just taught us to have confidence,” said junior pitcher/outfielder Darren Koopman.
Added junior infielder/pitcher Luke Kaat: “We all stayed friends and then had a nice coach support us all the way around.”
For a young team that had only one senior on its roster, the confidence grew with each victory.
“I think winning’s the key for everything. It’s a lot easier not to be negative when you’re winning ball games,” said Christian O’Donnell, a sophomore outfielder.
T.J. Obbink, a junior shortstop, said the Rockets never felt any pressure to succeed and didn’t fear failure.
“I think it’s just how together all of us are. We can all hang out and not be afraid to do anything, so there’s no pressure around us,” he said.
“There was more commitment this year. When you’re winning games, it’s much easier to get over it when you’re having conflicts with players or coaches.”
Cedar Grove-Belgium didn’t have big expectations before the season started.
Last year, injuries and players quitting the program left the Rockets unable to field a team for a whole season. They dropped the sport after starting 4-8.
This year, new coach Mike Ruppel and some young talent entered the picture.
At 14-4, the Rockets tied Sheboygan Lutheran/Kohler for the CLC title. If there had been a tiebreaker, it would have gone to Cedar Grove-Belgium, which defeated Lutheran/Kohler twice in three meetings.
The Rockets only lost one home game — their regular-season finale to Ozaukee, 2-0, in their second chance to win the CLC title outright.
Coach Ruppel, who took over a team on which many players hit less than .200 last year, said the Rockets’ goals “were pretty reasonable” this summer.
Statistically, he wanted to reduce the number of errors, have his pitchers throw strikes at least half the time and hit at least .250. In the bigger picture, he hoped to teach teens how to play the game right and create a sustainable program.
A conference title wasn’t on the radar, but Josh Ruppel, the coach’s son, saw the work players put in during the off-season and knew it should be a good year. The Rockets got hot right off the bat, winning 11 of their first 12 conference games.
Josh Ruppel said a game at Howards Grove on June 10 was a turning point.
“The crowd was wild. We were all pumped up; they were pumped up,” he recalled.
The Rockets pulled out a 4-2 win in a pitchers’ duel. Ruppel struck out 15, and Howards Grove ace Cole Reinemann fanned 12.
The victory, which put the Rockets at 5-1 in conference play, came against the two-time defending conference champions. That’s when Ruppel said the chance to win the conference became reality.
Cedar Grove-Belgium won its next six conference games and had a chance to claim the title alone. The Rockets stumbled a bit, taking their first two-game losing streak of the year into the playoffs, but recovered to defeat Campbellsport, 6-2, in a regional final July 19.
Cedar Grove-Belgium finished 15-8 overall.
“It makes us feel important after all that time,” Obbink said of the Rockets’ league title.
“It makes us think about how long it’s been. We didn’t really understand or know how long it had been.”
Cedar Grove-Belgium could have more fun on the baseball diamond next year, too. All but one of the 12 players listed on the varsity roster are expected to return in 2012.
“We’re just going to work hard in the off-season and hopefully come back, win conference again and have a good run in the playoffs,” Josh Ruppel said.