BURLINGTON — Wilmot baseball coach Josh Pye’s last game at the helm of the Panthers went well for a few innings.
Third-seeded Wilmot put up a four-spot in the top of the third inning to take a 4-1 lead at second-seeded Burlington on Thursday night in a WIAA Division-1 regional final.
But it was all Burlington after that.
Led by nine of their 12 hits from seniors, the Demons scored 10 unanswered runs in the third, fourth and fifth innings and pulled away for an 11-4 victory at Beaumont Field.
After the game, Pye, whose team finished at 14-8, took an extra long time addressing his squad outside the fence near the visiting bullpen. It wasn’t your average speech thanking the seniors for their four years and giving the underclassmen hope for next year.
It was a goodbye.
Pye, who took the Panthers to two State Tournaments in his 16 years, including a Division-1 runner-up finish in 2009, is calling it quits so he can attend more important moments in his four kids’ lives.
“I’m sad to say I won’t be here with them,” Pye said of next year’s promising Panthers squad. “This is it. I made the decision to step down strictly for family reasons. It was a decision I made before the season started, so I knew it going into it. I was looking into it last season, and with everyone going on, it just didn’t feel right, and I needed some closure.
“I wanted to be with these guys and give it one last go-round. I’ve coached high school baseball for 23 years.”
Josh has a son playing baseball at UW-La Crosse. With the later start to this season, he was able to attend some of his son’s games. His oldest daughter is going to the University of Minnesota next fall, and another daughter is a sophomore playing softball for Wilmot. And his youngest is now playing 10U baseball.
But Pye may not be done coaching forever, though.
“It was a crossroads, and I had to pick one, and I have to go to family right now and be a dad,” Pye said. “I’m hoping I can be on the sidelines again soon.”
Pye said the extra-innings loss to Bay Port in the state championship game in 2009 still keeps him up at night, and the Panthers were also among the final four teams at state in 2014.
Additionally, Pye won four Southern Lakes Conference championships.
He said the program has had some great players come through during his tenure, and he’ll remember the people the most.
“The kids and the families,” Pye said. “They’re great. The community’s great. The school is supportive. I still keep in touch with a lot of my ballplayers. That’s the most rewarding part. You remember the wins and losses, but it’s all about the relationships.”
Pye said he’s willing to help Wilmot’s baseball program in any way he can moving forward.
Demons pour it on
As for Thursday’s game, meanwhile, Wilmot trailed 1-0 in the third but got a hit from Cody Pappadakis before Caleb Cox walked.
Later, Marco Falletti smashed a two-run single, then Jack Vozel and Kaleb Gendron each added RBI singles. Suddenly, Wilmot was up 4-1 on the road.
But battle-tested Burlington, which reached the State Tournament four times in a row before last season was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, bounced right back in the bottom of the third with three runs to tie things up at 4-4.
Senior catcher Chase Ketterhagen blasted a two-run double over the left fielder’s head, and he finished with a triple, double and single for the Demons.
Leo Falletti would give up two more runs in the fourth and five in the fifth as Burlington ran away with it. Burlington seniors Joey Berezowitz and Kale Dietz each added two hits and two RBI.
Joe Zuleger got the win for the Demons, going six strong innings while allowing three earned runs, striking out five and scattering eight hits.
Falletti took the loss after allowing 11 earned runs in four innings.
“They out-hit us 11-7, and we walked eight guys,” Pye said. “They bunted the ball. They put the pressure on our defense, and that was the difference.”
For Burlington coach Scott Staude, it was his team’s fifth straight regional title.
“Zuleger was really good, he had one bad inning,” Staude said. “We felt pretty confident we could come back. It was about our seniors today. It just really matters to our seniors, and that’s what you want.
“They had the ‘refuse to lose’ mentality.’ Joe wasn’t flustered. He’s played in enough big games, and he knew it was just one bad inning.”
The Demons will be in Monday’s sectional at Bradford’s Wavro Field. They’ll face a familiar SLC foe in top-seeded Union Grove, ranked No. 6 in Division-1 in the latest state coaches poll, in the 10:30 a.m. sectional semifinal. The winner advances to the sectional final at approximately 3:30 p.m. Monday.