BELOIT— Their head coach was in his first season. They practiced on a sandlot. They lost their final two games of the regular season and fell behind 10-0 in a regional championship game.
Doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for success much less a trip to the state tournament.
That’s exactly what happened in May in 1991 when the Beloit Catholic High School Crusaders and rookie coach Todd Feiter rallied from that 10-run deficit to win, 12-11, and punch the school’s first ticket to the WISAA State Baseball Tournament since 1972.
“It was a great group of kids, a fun bunch to coach,” said Feiter, who would coach at BCHS one more season. “They listened and could hit the heck out of the ball. We struggled in the field or we’d have been even better. But we had a lot of fun and it was a great year.”
Feiter saw a roster of solid hitters whose fielding woes often got them in trouble. The first-year Crusader coach blamed some of that on the team’s practice conditions.
“We practiced on the field in front of Catholic at Summit Park,” he said. “There was a backstop, but there wasn’t a diamond cut in. We would throw the gloves down for bases and practice. We never really had a real diamond to practice on.”
“A lot of foul baseballs would bounce on Henry Avenue,” infielder John Fiorello said. “It was like playing ‘Frogger’ dodging traffic to get all those balls.”
The team, a nice mix of seniors and juniors, had good chemistry and responded well to the new coach.
“We related to (Feiter) and wanted to play hard for him,” first baseman Jason Walker said. “You could tell he loved baseball and he added some excitement to the program. I really liked him as a coach and as a person.”
Some of the players and their coach keep in touch via Facebook and there have been unofficial reunions at Brewers games.
That WISAA Class B regional comeback victory over highly-regarded Burlington St. Mary usually comes up first. The Crusaders not only overcame a 10-run deficit, but eight errors.
“That game is what I really remember the most about that season, not the state championship game,” Walker said. “Coming back and winning that game and getting there in the first place was really special.”
Walker, who’s daughter Jacey would be the ace of the Beloit Memorial softball team this spring, has good reason to remember that game. With the word “State” scrawled under the bill of his cap he hammered a two-run home run in the fifth inning that was the game-winner.
Visiting BCHS had trailed Burlington 10-0 early, but used nine walks to score 10 runs of its own in the third inning. The pitchers settled down and the Crusaders trailed 11-10 heading to the fifth. Fiorello drew a walk and an out later, Walker sent a 3-1 pitch over the wall in dead center.
The win over St. Mary’s was their third in the playoffs. They flattened Racine Prairie, 10-0, in a play-in game before knocking off Martin Luther Prep, 15-1, in the semifinals. Aron Bussan led a 17-hit Crusader attack with two doubles, a single and four RBIs. Fiorello and Andy Cikar also had three hits while Jeff Schill had a home run and three RBI.
The catalyst of the 1991 Crusaders was senior Schill, the team’s leadoff hitter and top pitcher.
“Jeff was a great player,” Walker said. “He had a lot of talent, plus he had really good baseball smarts.”
Schill hit .337 and led the 13-7 team with 17 runs batted in. He went on to play four years at St. Norbert College, following an older brother there. His younger sister, Julie, would not only star in basketball at BCHS, but become a 1,000-point scorer at SNC.
“My older brother and I thought we were pretty good and then along comes Julie and she’s the best athlete of all,” said Jeff, who now lives in Menomonee Falls. “For me, my senior year was very important because the year before I’d missed a playoff game to attend my brother’s graduation from St. Norbert. I wanted to make up for that by having us win when I was a senior.”
He had help. Four other Crusaders also hit over .300: Chris Heidt (.409), Jeremy Schnack (.400), Doug Chamberlain (.386) and Gene Redieske (.326). Chamberlain had 14 RBIs.
In an odd scheduling quirk that season, the Crusaders had two Rock Valley Conference regular-season games to play before the WISAA State Tournament. They dropped them both, to Evansville and Clinton.
Still, they felt like a team of destiny heading to Stevens Point for the state title game. “After coming back against a powerful team like Burlington, we didn’t think there’s any way we’d lose at state,” Walker said.
Rain wiped out the first day and unplayable conditions forced the tourney to move to Wausau’s Athletic Park on Saturday, May 18, where the Crusaders quickly learned there was another heavy-hearted team banking on being a team of destiny.
Wausau Newman’s head coach, Tyrone Kleinhans, had been killed in an auto accident that Thursday night. The Crusaders were greeted by a throng of fans in light blue T-shirts with “In Memory of Tyrone” on them.
“We’re playing on their home field and the place is packed with their fans wearing those shirts,” said Feiter, who retired from coaching after 20 seasons and now lives in Oshkosh. “Newspapers all over had stories about how they were playing after their coach had been killed. USA Today even reported on it.”
The Crusaders jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Schnack singled with two outs, went to third on two wild pitches and scored on an error.
Newman went up 2-1 in the bottom of the inning against Schill, but the Crusaders rallied for three in the second on Heidt’s bases-loaded double.
The Cardinals again answered in the bottom of the second inning, taking a 5-4 lead. Walker put BCHS back on top with a two-run blast over the left field fence in the third.
The Crusaders expanded their advantage to 8-5 in the fourth on a two-run single by Fiorello. They held that lead heading to the bottom of the sixth, just six outs from the team’s first state baseball title since 1955.
The Cardinals, though, rallied for four runs for a 9-8 win.
“I remember throughout the game I just thought we’d win,” said Schill. “I gave up a lot of hits, but I thought I’d pitched pretty well. In the sixth, they had a couple of guys on with two outs and I thought, OK, I’m going to put this pitch on the outside corner, he’s going to ground out and we’ll be out of it. Instead, I left it up and he hit a drive over Chris Heidt’s head in center and they took the lead. Just like that, we’re losing.”
“In the top of the seventh, we had a guy strike out to end the game and he went down to his knees because he was upset,” Fiorello said. “We all crowded around him. I’ll never forget what Coach Feiter said to us. He said, ‘It’s all right, guys, we can go home.’ I know what he meant. They had won, but they still had to deal with what had happened to their coach. It put it in perspective. There are a lot more important things than losing a state championship.”
“Maybe they were the team of destiny,” Walker said.