Former Panthers team up at UW-Whitewater

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Sigmund, Manns earn playing time for Warhawks

Greg Bates, Times Herald correspondent

Michael Manns, who graduated from Oconto Falls in 2016, is in his freshman season catching at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. (Photo by UW-Whitewater Athletics)

It was a moment Evan Sigmund and Michael Manns will remember for the rest of their lives.

With the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater baseball team leading Grinnell 16-0, the Warhawks coaches inserted Sigmund to pitch the seventh inning and Manns to catch in their March 25 game in Auburndale, Florida.

The two longtime friends and former Oconto Falls teammates got to experience their first college baseball game together. The freshmen battery mates were on the big stage.

“I felt so comfortable back there with him and just knowing what his movement was, knowing everything,” Manns said. “It’s just so nice catching someone you’re so familiar with.”

“It’s pretty cool to have somebody like that that you’re used to for 10-plus years. Whether it’s little league, middle school, high school, he was just always my catcher,” Sigmund said. “It’s nice having that familiar face for sure. That really helps a lot for both of our success.”

The UW-Whitewater baseball team has a heavy Oconto Falls feel this season. Along with Sigmund and Manns on the roster, Riley Gruetzmacher joins his former Panthers teammates. Gruetzmacher graduated from Oconto Falls in 2015, while Sigmund and Manns were from the class of 2016.

Gruetzmacher is also pitching for the Warhawks, so he has a strong connection with Manns as well as Sigmund.

“Mike was my catcher in high school, so him coming here … just made it that much more easier to get comfortable with the catchers,” Gruetzmacher said. “I’m comfortable with him, so there’s no learning curve there. He knows what I like to throw, all that.”

It’s a great dynamic on the Whitewater team with three of the 34 players from Oconto Falls. The Warhawks, ranked No. 3 in the country, have another great team this season. UW-Whitewater has perennially been a top-10 ranked team, winning the national title in 2014.

Oconto Falls has had a history of churning out athletes to play baseball at UW-Whitewater. Former major league pitcher Bob Wickman had a great high school career and then played for the Warhawks from 1987-90. Most recently, Mike Nompleggi, a 2012 Oconto Falls graduate, was a successful pitcher for four seasons at UW-Whitewater.

“I don’t know what it is about us pitchers and Oconto Falls and Whitewater; we just have something going on there,” Sigmund said.

The three guys love getting a chance to play together again. Gruetzmacher played his freshman year at UW-Whitewater and then didn’t go out for the team last season for academic reasons. But he’s back on the field this year. Sigmund and Manns both grayshirted as freshman – they sat out their season so they still have four years of NCAA eligibility remaining.

“It’s really fun,” said Manns about playing again with Gruetzmacher and Sigmund. “It kind of brings us back to the high school days. I’ve known these guys for pretty much my whole life, so it’s good to stick with them and play with them. I think it helps me out a lot, just to truly know people.”

The UW-Whitewater teammates of Gruetzmacher, Sigmund and Manns are also well aware all three come from Oconto Falls. The players and head coach John Vodenlich like to joke around with the former Panthers.

“When I’m catching Riley or catching Evan, they go, ‘Uh, oh. Here comes O-Falls,’” Manns said. “They just joke around about that. It’s just good fun.”

“O-Falls has made a name in Whitewater, that’s for sure, for the last four years,” Gruetzmacher said.

Finding their roles

Early in the season, Gruetzmacher, Sigmund and Manns are trying to find their roles on the team. Through March 25, the Warhawks are off to a 5-0 start and showing their No. 3 national ranking is no fluke.

Gruetzmacher, who is 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, pitched in 10 games as a freshman in 2016. He didn’t factor in any decisions, but had one save and a 3.60 ERA.

This year as a sophomore, Gruetzmacher has found his way into the closer position early on. In his team’s first five games, the big right-hander has appeared in three games, throwing four innings. He’s given up one earned run and four hits while striking out six to sport an ERA of 2.25.

Being a closer is a different role for Gruetzmacher. At Oconto Falls, he was generally relied on to start and pitch seven innings.

“It’s a little different mentality,” Gruetzmacher said. “Instead of warming up inning to inning, you have to come out already as warm as you can be — come out hot.”

Gruetzmacher is happy he can be a key contributor on a strong team.

“It really doesn’t matter much to me whether I’m starting or closing,” Gruetzmacher said. “Everyone fights for a spot on the team, and having an important role is good enough for me.”

Sigmund was also an ace as a starter at Oconto Falls. As a freshman, it appears he’ll be a mid-relief setup pitcher out of the bullpen. But there are a lot of moving parts in the starting rotation early in the season.

“Right now, it’s really unclear,” said the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Sigmund. “There’s still time I’m sure for the coach to see what he likes to see, see where everybody fits in. Right now, it looks like the starting pitching rotation is set, and I’ll find my role sometime in late relief, long relief – some way, shape or form in that way.”

When the UW-Whitewater players warm up and go through throwing progress, Gruetzmacher and Sigmund – who are two of 10 pitchers on the Warhawks roster – team up. They are obviously friends, but also have similar throwing styles.

“We’ve both been working on a splitter lately,” Sigmund said, “giving each other feedback on how the ball’s moving, what we can do to get better — whether it’s release point (or) where your hands are on the ball.”

The two pitchers share advice and constantly help each other out.

“He helps me in every drill, and I help him,” Gruetzmacher said. “You’ve got to have someone to spot your flaws.”

Sigmund came out of high school with just a two-pitch repertoire, a fastball and curveball. He’s been working on the changeup to enhance his pitching selection.

In his first college game, Sigmund threw one inning, giving up one earned run on four hits. He collected all three of his outs via strikeout.

Manns had a great time catching Sigmund in that first game. Manns knows exactly what types of pitches Sigmund throws and the best situations in which to throw them.

“We have a blast together,” Manns said. “When we face hitters, we know what to do. I’ve caught them for so many years, it’s really easy to communicate with us.”

Manns is one of three catchers on the roster, behind a pair of seniors. He knows his number of innings this season will be limited, but he’s ready to contribute in any way possible.

“Right now, I’m not expecting a lot of playing time,” Manns said. “It’s kind of just my first year, and I don’t think they fully have me developed as their catcher yet. I hope I get a few innings in, hopefully more than I expect.”