Monday, August 25, 2008

Verona Home Talent is a family affair

MARSHALL – The Verona Cavaliers lost the opening game of the Home Talent League championship series round robin due to a Sun Prairie walk-off homerun, but all is not lost. If they keep focused on what got them to the “Final Four,” there’s still hope.

What got them as far as they did was some family-oriented baseball.

Manager Dale Burgenske has two offspring that are starters on the Verona nine. Son Derek was the team’s starting centerfielder on Sunday while his brother David was right by his side over in leftfield.

But that’s not all. First base coach Dan Prochaska’s son Derek was behind the plate catching for the Cavaliers.

“It's not just me being his son,” said Derek. “He looks after everybody else on the team. He and Dale are dads for everybody. It's just nice having that family aspect of it.”

Even if none of the other players have brothers on the team, they can at least feel like they do. That’s been one of the key ingredients in Verona’s recipe for success.

“I think it relaxes the kids a little bit knowing that they're not just being watched by strangers,” said Dan Prochaska. “They can relax a little and feel comfortable out there knowing that they have support behind them, not just the players, but family support.”

The family aspect has gotten Verona a long way. They rode into the game against Sun Prairie on a seven game winning streak, they had the best record in the Western section during the regular season, and they’ve made the championship series in six out of the past eight years.

In fact, Dale Burgenske has a 94-17 record in the regular season since 2002. It’s fair to say that Verona has been one of the league’s most dominant teams during his tenure. And according to Burgenske, the family-like bond is part of the reason they’ve seen so much success.

“You've got to get that camaraderie,” said Dale Burgenske. “You play on Thursdays, you play on Sundays, and sometimes it's the camaraderie that gets you the five or six extra wins, or it gets you into the ‘Final Four.’ So we have a great time. It is kind of a family thing here, and we enjoy that part of it too.”

In the storied eighty year history of the Home Talent League, Verona has never been able to win it all. They just haven’t been able to get over the hump, but this could be the year that changes that trend.

Thanks to the league’s unique round robin format, no team is eliminated from contention after the first round of play. And no team has the championship wrapped up for that matter either.

“No one's ever out of it,” said Dale Burgenske. “Everybody always wants to win that first game, because all then all they got to do hopefully is split the rest of the way out, and they still got a chance to be in the sudden death playoff. But yeah, our backs are against the wall now.”

Their backs may be against the wall, but with the family-like feel the Verona team has, at least the players know that somebody’s got their back.

Next weekend’s Home Talent League road trip: Sun Prairie at Utica in the second round of the championship series round robin on Sunday August 31 at 1:00.

Photo caption: Verona's Derek Prochaska waits to receive a warm up pitch in the opening game of the "Final Four."
Photo credit: Brian Carriveau

Gross wins the game

Sun Prairie's Aaron Gross is moments away from crossing home plate after his towering walk-off home run in their opening round victory over Verona in the Home Talent League championship round robin.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Feiner leads Sun Prairie in more ways than one

DE FOREST – Sun Prairie was the lowest remaining seed in the entire 42 team Home Talent League. They beat all odds and the DeForest Deacons on Sunday to earn their way into the league’s championship series thanks in large part to catcher Kasey Feiner.

To say that he’s experienced doesn’t begin to describe this year’s starting catcher on the HTL All-Star team. He’s a veteran influence and a leader both on his team and even within his own family.

While Feiner is paving the way for Sun Prairie to go to the Final Four, he has two brothers that are playing professional baseball whom he played mentor to as they grew up.

“Kasey was a great teacher along the way the way for his younger brothers,” said his father Scott. “No doubt about it.”

Kasey’s brother Korey is a catcher in the Seattle Mariners minor league organization while Kevyn is a middle infielder in the Cincinnati Reds farm system.

So while his siblings are getting paid to play, Kasey is enjoying the spoils of a successful season back home.

One of the reasons Sun Prairie finds themselves as the Eastern section playoff champions is that Feiner and several his teammates have been there and done that before. As HTL champions in 2005, Feiner knows better than to let the pressure of a big game dictate how the team plays. “

The special one about this is you get to appreciate it because you've already been there and won one,” said Feiner. “You really get to relax and appreciate it.”

A lot was at stake on Sunday. The loser was sent home packing, but the winner gets to play an addition three and maybe even four weeks in the league’s round robin championship format.
“We've got a little more playoff experience than they do,” said Sun Prairie manager Scott Knorr about one of the reasons they were able to beat DeForest and move on in the playoffs.

Sun Prairie was the lowest remaining seed coming into Eastern section playoffs and, of course, they will continue to be as they begin the first round of the championship series next week when they take on Verona in Marshall on Sunday. Feiner thinks it’s an advantage not to be the favorite.

“Even though we were the fourth seed, I was feeling confident about that Monona game,” said Feiner about their opening round victory in the Eastern section a week prior. “And it's kind of nice because you win that one and you get some momentum going, and you're still the underdog. They're still expected to beat you.”

No one would have blamed Feiner had he packed it in after Sun Prairie won the league title back in 2005. After all, here he is toiling in amateur baseball when two of his brothers are playing professionally.

But he doesn’t feel like the low man on the totem pole. Instead he’s achieving at highest level he knows.

“You play to have fun and to compete against other people,” said Feiner. “I get to have my parents and a whole bunch of people come watch me. So those guys [his brothers] are kind of slaving away. I don't know who has it better.”

Next weekend’s Home Talent League road trip: Sun Prairie plays Verona in the first round of the championship series round robin at Marshall on Sunday August 24 at 1:00.

Photo credit: Brian Carriveau

Monday, August 11, 2008

Celebrated season comes to an end in Evansville

“The slipper almost fit, huh?” said Evansville Home Talent centerfielder/general manager Jon Frey after his team’s first ever playoff appearance on Sunday.

Evansville may have had a storybook season, but it just didn’t have a storybook ending. Their reign as Cinderella ended with their loss to the Fort Atkinson Generals in the first round of the Southeastern section playoffs.

In only their fourth year in Home Talent, the Evansville Jays have come a long way. In their first three seasons their best Sunday League record included only four wins, which they managed twice. They more than doubled that output this year when their 10-4 record was good enough for first place in the West division of the Southeastern section.

The season was highlighted by their sole possession of first place in the West at midseason, but a few late losses resulted in a tie for first with Utica. Evansville lost the tiebreaker and had to head to Fort Atkinson in the playoffs as a result.

But it’s not as if Evansville didn’t give Fort a run for their money. After being down by four runs early in the game, the Jays came back to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth behind the strength of a Nick Manion two run homer.The game went to extra innings, but Fort Atkinson ousted the Jays when a Scott Kammer RBI single scored Brandon Krigbaum in the bottom of the tenth to cap off an exciting finish.

When asked about the outcome after the game, Generals manager Jim Roethel replied, “Well, as soon as my heart gets back to normal.”

Evansville could have rolled over when down by a score of 5-1, but fought back in a valiant effort.

“We made a nice comeback,” said Jays manager Bob Kurtz. “I'm proud of our guys, the way they battled back in this game. I'm proud of every one of them because they stuck their nose in there and got it done, but we came up on the short end.”

At the very least, Evansville served notice to the rest of the league that they’re for real. While some sections take eight teams to the playoffs, the Southeast only takes four. Simply qualifying for the playoffs was an accomplishment in itself.

For the young team, it will be a learning experience. Evansville won a lot of close games earlier in the year. And now that they were on the losing end of a close game, they have no choice but to look back, reflect and learn from their season ending loss.

“We won a lot of games in the last inning and extra innings,” said Kurtz. “I think we won three extra inning ball games, and that put us where we were in the standings. We just came out on the short end of it today.”

After the game, the Jays had a discussion in the visitors’ dugout, and suddenly things didn’t seem so bad even though their season had just ended.

Frey relayed the essence of it: “Bob said it at the end of the game, maybe we put Evansville on the Home Talent map.”

Next weekend’s Home Talent League road trip: Sun Prairie at DeForest on Sunday August 17 at 1:00 for the right to go to the Final Four.
Photo credit: Brian Carriveau

Monday, August 4, 2008

Veteran duo put Utica on the map

UTICA, Wis. – On Saturday’s regular season finale against rival Stoughton during the annual Utica Festival, the two people with arguably the most influence on Utica baseball didn’t take the field.

Just because they didn’t play doesn’t mean their presence wasn’t felt, though. Dale Vike and Scott Hestnes are as much a part of the Utica Festival as the tractor pulls.

If Hestnes doesn’t ring a bell, maybe “Scoobie” does as he’s more well-known in Home Talent circles. The forty-something southpaw teamed with the fifty-something Vike to form one of the Home Talent League’s most formidable batteries during Utica’s dominance in the early to mid-nineties.

“He was a helluva pitcher in his day,” said Vike about Hestnes. “I know. I caught him for about 10 years.” After establishing a team in 1990 after a four year layoff, it only took the duo two seasons to help lead the Utica Association to a league championship in ’91, which both call among their most memorable experiences in all their years of Home Talent.

“Just winning the championship,” said Vike, “I’ve always dreamed of that. That was the best memory.”

“That first year we were out here, we were competitive,” recalls Hestnes. “We just never could seem to put nine innings together. And then obviously '91 we put it all together, and it basically snowballed from there on out.”

As good as their on-the-field exploits were their off-the-field time spent together was just as memorable.

“We had a lot of fun times,” said Hestnes. “Probably after ballgames, a lot of late nights and early mornings out to Dale's farm after ballgames. Dale doing a lot of breakfast cooking with eggs and helping him milk cows in the morning.”

Strictly a manager now, Vike’s playing days are behind him. Hestnes, meanwhile, still pitches occasionally. The crafty left-hander now relies on guile and accuracy.

“Scoobie doesn’t look like he’s a very hard pitcher to hit, but he has a lot of really good off speed pitches even at his age,” said Stoughton manager Jim Winter. “He doesn’t throw very hard anymore, but he’s got enough off speed pitches that he keeps you off balance.”

If they’re smart, the younger Utica players will learn as much as possible from Vike and Hestnes. There’s a lot of baseball experience and knowledge between the two of them.

When he was younger, Vike played in the Cleveland Indians farm system. And Hestnes played in three college World Series during his time at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

The junior Utica players better soak up as much as they can as quickly as they can. The pair admit they’re closer to the end of their baseball careers than they are to the beginning. But as long as they’re having fun, like they had at Utica Fest, they’ll keep at it.

When asked about what keeps him playing baseball, Hestnes replied, “Just the competitiveness, the camaraderie, the fans. Watching the other guys come up through. Days like this, you know?”

Those who follow Home Talent know exactly what he means.

Next weekend’s Home Talent League road trip: Evansville at Fort Atkinson on Sunday August 10 at 1:00 for the Jays’ first ever playoff appearance.