Oconto Falls baseball team remembers 1973 title

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The squad found itself playing schools that were four and five times its size
By: 

Greg Bates, Times Herald correspondent

Fred Peterson sat back in his chair, relaxed and comfortable.

With the Milwaukee Brewers game on in the background, Peterson looked proudly at a wall in his room at an assisted living facility in Green Bay.

Hanging up are plaques commemorating his coaching achievements. The former Oconto Falls baseball coach has plenty of mementos from the great years he had on the bench.

There’s a plaque from when he was inducted into the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1984 and another one recognizing him coaching a high school all-star game at County Stadium in Milwaukee. But the awards that mean the most are from the two state championships Peterson helped guide Oconto Falls to in 1973 and 1978.

In his seventh season at the helm in 1973, Peterson coached a bunch of teenagers to the ultimate goal. Now, 45 years later, Peterson – who turned 89 in May – still relishes in one of his greatest coaching jobs of his illustrious career.

“I was pretty proud of the team the way they played,” Peterson said. “I knew they could do it. My prayer was answered. I was so happy about that. That was a long time ago, but it brings back fond memories.”

The former players still look back on the experience, too, as one of the greatest moments in their sporting careers.

“It’s been a while, but it was pretty exciting at the time,” catcher Ron Leja said. “I don’t know if I have all the facts straight. I haven’t looked at a scorebook in years.”

Back in 1973, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association only had one class for baseball, which meant the large schools would square off against the small schools for the right to claim the only title in the state. Five years later, the WIAA transitioned to three classes. The 1973 Oconto Falls squad found itself playing schools that were four and five times its size. No matter, they beat them all.

“I think it was just unbelievable for a small school to do what we did,” said Leja, who is now a cash crop farmer in Abrams and president of the Oconto Falls School Board. “I don’t know if some of these teams were overlooking us. But one thing is, I think we weren’t scared, and that was probably because of our coach. Every year, coach Peterson set four goals for us, and we heard the same thing from freshman through senior year. Our four goals were: win the conference, win regionals, win sectionals and win state.”

The Panthers players got to check off all four goals in 1973.

Peterson said the players all got along really well, and he never had any issues. That was a big reason for their success.

“They didn’t argue,” he said. “When someone did something good, they would pat them on the back — good comments to them. That was a team. That was a good team.”

“A lot of pieces that came together and didn’t break,” said senior first baseman Tom Reim, who remembers batting .528 in conference play that season. “A lot of good teammates who kind of all fit their part.”

The 1973 team was a balanced group of seven seniors, four juniors and four sophomores that relied on its defense and pitching to chalk up victories. The Panthers remarkably allowed just 29 runs across 17 games.

Ace Doug Meyer finished the season with a perfect record. The senior was joined in the pitching rotation by junior Bob Smith and sophomore Robin Heider.

“I think they had pretty good arms, live arms,” Leja said.

Offensively, Oconto Falls wasn’t spectacular. But it didn’t have to be with its stellar pitching and defense.

“We had a lot of timely hits,” Reim said. “There were times when we won 5-4, won 3-2. We didn’t win 15-12.”

Oconto Falls captured the Bay Conference with an 8-1 record. The team lost to Pulaski in the final game of the regular season, but that didn’t slow down the guys from making their postseason run. The Panthers downed Bonduel, Shawano and Luxemburg in regionals and eliminated Kewaunee and Pulaski in the sectionals to earn the program’s first state tournament berth.

Peterson always treated his players well. He was confident his guys could come through on the big stage at state.

“I tried to continue to talk positively, and that helped a lot,” Peterson said. “Tell them how good they were. They wanted to show that I knew what I was talking about.”

In the opening round of state at Athletic Park in Wausau, Oconto Falls got a gem from Meyer on the mound. The team downed Kenosha Tremper 3-0 as Meyer surrendered just three hits. Oconto Falls collected just two hits but still scratched off the three runs.

Smith got the start in the semifinals against Eau Claire Memorial. It’s a game that’s gone unmatched in state tournament lore.

The 16-inning affair is still the longest state baseball game in WIAA history in any class. First pitch was about 9 p.m., and the final out was recorded around 1:30 a.m.

“They were on adrenaline,” said Dan Peterson, the coach’s son, who was a bat boy that season.

Memorial scored its lone run in the third inning off Smith, who pitched the first four innings for Oconto Falls. The Panthers tied the game in the sixth when sophomore Lonnie Kostrova walked and came around to score on an error.

Heider came in to relieve Smith in the fifth inning and ended up pitching 10 scoreless innings, giving up only four hits. He also picked off three baserunners at first.

“He had pinpoint control,” Leja said. “And to pitch 10 shutout innings at that point in his career was pretty outstanding.”

Smith, nicknamed “Stick Arm” by his teammates, re-entered the game in the bottom of the 15th inning.

Reim remembers walking up to his friend on the mound and offering a few words.

“‘I think we’re going to score about five runs the next inning, so why don’t you not give them any? We’ll get this job done,’” Reim said.

In the 16th, Oconto Falls got its offense going. Harry Spice singled to lead off the rally, and Chuck Grady followed with a walk. Smith squared around to bunt and popped the ball up, but fortunately it wasn’t caught. Even better, the throw went to the plate where Spice was safe. The ball got away, and Grady also scored.

Smith advanced to third on the play, and Kostrova walked and stole second. Reim, the team’s No. 3 hitter, stroked a single to plate Smith. Kostrova was gunned down trying to score. Reim then advanced to third on a wild pitch. After Mike Stiller worked a pinch-hit walk and stole second, Reim scored on the throw down to make it 5-1.

Memorial threatened in its half of the 16th, but Smith struck out the final two batters of the game.

Oconto Falls had a quick turnaround for the championship that very day since it was early into the morning.

“It didn’t give us time for a whole lot of thinking, because by the time we all got back to the motel and went to sleep, it was probably 2 a.m.,” Reim said. “And the next game the next day was at noon.”

Oconto Falls was going to play another epic game in the championship against Madison East.

“We were just hoping we weren’t going to play 16 innings again,” joked Leja.

Reim, who went on to play football and baseball at the University of North Dakota, couldn’t believe the final time he would wear the Oconto Falls baseball uniform would be in a state title game.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword, because I knew putting it on (my uniform), it was the last time,” Reim said. “But at the same time, I thought, ‘We might as well win.’ It’s kind of like playing in the rain. If you’re going to get wet, it’s better to be the winner wet.”

With Meyer on the mound, the Panthers trailed 1-0 heading into the sixth inning. Down to their last six outs, Oconto Falls wasn’t done. Not by a long shot.

Oconto Falls loaded the bases with no outs. Spice walked and Jerry Peterson – who had two of his team’s five hits – scored. After the Purgolders pitcher struck out the next two hitters, Kostrova walked to bring in Rick Braun with the go-ahead run to make it 2-1.

In the bottom of the seventh, Madison East got its leadoff hitter on base, but Meyer took care of business by striking out the final two hitters.

Oconto Falls had won the state title.

“I went toward Doug (Meyer). He was on the mound, and we kind of just kept walking toward each other, and the rest of the players were coming hard,” said Reim, who finished the tournament with state records in total at-bats for the tournament (16) and at-bats in a game (eight) against Eau Claire Memorial. “We just kept looking at each other like, ‘Well, it’s good and bad. It’s over, but it’s over.’”

“We were so happy for a long time after,” Leja said. “It was an unbelievable feeling — just to get there and get it done.”

During the awards ceremony following the game, the Oconto Falls players were still riding a high. Reim was handed the state championship trophy and proudly showed it to the faithful Oconto Falls crowd in attendance.

“That was pretty emotional,” said Reim, who now runs his own company, the Tom Reim Agency, selling insurance and investment securities in Bismarck, North Dakota. “That was fun.”

Reim recalled sitting next to Braun on the bus ride home and having an interesting conversation.

“He said, ‘Gosh, Tom. What do you think they’re going to do when we get back to town?’” Reim said. “‘What if we could ride the firetrucks?’ I went, ‘Nah, you’ve got to be kidding me.’ We got to the edge of town, and the firetrucks were there. It was cool.”