1978 Oconto Falls baseball team recalls state title

Team wanted to recreate magic from 5 years earlier
By: 

Greg Bates, Times Herald correspondent

Tim Grady always looked up to his older brother, Chuck, growing up.

So, when Chuck played a big role in helping the Oconto Falls baseball team win the state title in 1973, Tim wanted to win a championship himself five years later.

“We had won a tournament in Babe Ruth and we thought, ‘Let’s match these guys,’” said Tim Grady, who was the ace pitcher on the 1978 team. “It was definitely a driving force with that ‘73 team winning state ahead of us.”

“We watched that, we wanted to be that someday,” said Doug Ahlborg, a catcher on the 1978 squad. “We worked hard at it, we kept at it.”

The 1978 team – led by eight seniors, including Grady and Ahlborg – was a dedicated group that played consistently well all season and ended up winning the Class B state title.

It was a dream come true for the guys.

Now, 40 years later, a flood of recollections come to mind for the players when they look back on the Oconto Falls baseball program’s last state championship.

Does it feel like 40 years have passed?

“It does, but it doesn’t,” Grady said. “I guess you get old. It’s fun to look back on it, that’s for sure.”

Grady wasn’t the only brother combination from the 1973 and 1978 teams. Lawrence Mayer, who was on the first state title team, had a younger brother, Jim, who was the starting shortstop the latter year.

“Being such a small town, we all knew these guys,” Grady said.

According to junior second baseman Dan Peterson, it was a close-knit group that had competed in plenty of sports together throughout the years.

“When it became baseball season, it all just kind of clicked,” Peterson said.

The Panthers outscored their opponents 138-57 en route to a 19-2 record.

Oconto Falls relied on its pitching, which had two durable arms in Grady and Randy “Fudd” Ellner.

“We’d go pretty much the whole game all the time,” said Grady, who rotated at first base with Ellner when the other was pitching. “I can only remember a handful of times I’d go in for him or he’d go in for me.”

Both Grady and Ellner had good curveballs. Grady had a rare knuckle curveball, which he learned from Robin Heider, who was a pitcher on the 1973 team.

“We had really good control, we didn’t walk a lot of guys and we worked fast,” Grady said.

“It’s all about good pitching and defense and putting it all together,” said Ahlborg, who was a three-year starter just like Grady. “Knowing what you can do, knowing what guy can do what. That’s where the coaches came in.”

Ahlborg, who was a second-team all-state catcher that year by the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association (WBCA), remembers Oconto Falls had a solid team coming into the season. With a good balance of players – eight seniors, six juniors and a pair of underclassmen – the team had a shot at a deep playoff run.

“Our goal was to get there and win it,” Ahlborg said.

Head coach Fred Peterson, who helped the 1973 team win state, was confident his guys could capture the state title.

“I did think positive,” said Peterson, who turned 89 years old in May. “I was so happy.”

It was a special season for Peterson having his son starting on the team. It was also a highlight for Dan.

“I enjoyed it,” Dan said.

Coach said he treated his son like any other player.

“I was very proud of him,” Peterson said.

Grady, who was a third-team all-state pitcher that year by the WBCA, also enjoyed his time learning under his coach. He called Peterson a coach who was well before his time since he was such a stickler for teaching fundamentals.

“You bunt guys over,” Grady said. “Every day in practice, we practiced situations. We’d have a guy on first and third, one out and he’d hit a ball somewhere and you’d have to know where you’re going with the ball.”

Oconto Falls finished 7-2 in the Bay Conference, falling in two one-run games to Ashwaubenon and West De Pere. Coach Peterson, who was in his 12th season as head coach and was named to the WBCA Hall of Fame in 1984, scheduled a doubleheader against Wausau West that season.

Perhaps Peterson was looking ahead to the state tournament, which was held at Athletic Park in Wausau, which is West’s home field. The Panthers played well, sweeping the twin bill on a Saturday, 11-5 and 12-4.

“He wanted to get us over there and give us a feel for that ballpark because I think he knew we had a chance to possibly to get to state,” Grady said.

Oconto Falls rolled into the postseason with a 12-2 record. The guys took care of Freedom 5-3, Northland Pines 8-1 and Oconto 3-1 to win a regional title. The Panthers downed Algoma 6-3 and then had to play at Little Chute in a sectional final.

Dan Peterson hit a solo home run in that contest, but the score remained tied 1-1 entering the bottom of the seventh inning. Oconto Falls was the home team despite Little Chute hosting the game, so the Panthers went to the plate in the last of the seventh with a chance to grab a win.

Myron Baranczyk got on base, stole second and gambled going to third base as the throw to second went into center field. With two outs, Grady stepped to the plate and laced a walk-off single up the middle to plate Baranczyk to give Oconto Falls the victory.

The eight Oconto Falls seniors on the team had to race home and get to the school because graduation was that night. Administration held up graduation slightly for the late players.

“We showered and got up there,” Grady said. “Our hair was wet, so our hats were all wet. We walked into the gym and said, ‘We’re going to state,’ and the place went crazy.”

Riding a high heading into the state tournament, Oconto Falls had to face off against a tough Nekoosa squad.

“We knew we had our hands full with Nekoosa,” Ahlborg said. “Their team was batting over .300 as a team, so we knew we had our hands full.”

Grady was on the mound for Oconto Falls and kept his team in the game. He had an interesting stat line that day. He closed out his complete game with eight walks and 15 strikeouts, which are both still in the WIAA record book for Division 2.

There was one moment in the game that is etched in Grady’s memory.

“I remember facing their No. 4 hitter with the bases loaded and that was like the fifth inning and we were up a couple runs,” Grady said. “Coach Peterson came out and said, ‘Just do your best,’ and he popped it right to me. Sky ball straight up.”

The game went into the bottom of the sixth tied at six. Ahlborg reached base, stole second, moved to third when the catcher bobbled the ball and scored on a passed ball. He remembers wanting to be aggressive on the base paths as the potential winning run.

“I was coming, get out of my way,” Ahlborg said. “It was getting late, it felt good. I had good speed. It was fun.”

Oconto Falls took on a good Waunakee squad in the championship. Ellner took the mound for the Panthers.

Oconto Falls scored twice in the first inning and the Warriors went up 3-2 in the second. Rick Ama got his second hit of the game for Oconto Falls with an RBI single in the third to tie the game. Waunakee regained the lead 4-3 in the top of the sixth, but Oconto Falls wasn’t done.

Grady remembers a critical sequence in the game when he was playing first base. With a runner on third base, there was a popup with some spin on it that Grady dropped.

“Danny Peterson, the second baseman, was standing right next to me and he picked it up,” Grady said. “Danny didn’t have a very good arm and he fired a strike to Doug Ahlborg at home plate. He couldn’t have thrown it any better, because the guy from third took off when I dropped it and he threw him out. That was a huge play there.”

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Mayer and Jeff Piper each had singles for Oconto Falls. With Doug Brylski slated to come to bat, coach Peterson inserted pinch hitter John VandenLangenberg. It was a great move as VandenLangenberg roped a double to the centerfield fence to plate Mayer and Piper. VandenLangenberg then scored on an error, and wild pitch plated the fourth Panthers run of the inning.

“That whole game was just tense,” Ahlborg said.

With Waunakee down to its last out, a Warriors batter hit a ground ball to Mayer at shortstop who threw over to Grady for the final out. Bedlam ensued as the Panthers grabbed their second state title in six seasons.

“Gloves and everything flying in the air,” Grady recalled. “Really cool.”

Grady still has that ball in his collection. It’s a memento that he cherishes.

“We saw that celebration in ‘73 when they won, and now we were there doing the same thing,” Ahlborg said. “It felt like I was back there in ‘73 when we watched that game in the championship.”

The players also remembered that in 1973 when the team won the state title they got to ride on fire trucks around town when they returned to Oconto Falls. The 1978 players were looking forward to the same celebrity treatment.

“The bus ride back was just phenomenal, just a high,” Ahlborg said.

These days, the guys still think about and reminisce about winning the state title. They’ve all had successful careers away from baseball. Grady ran his own business, Grady Oil Company in Oconto Falls, and retired five years ago after selling the operation.

Ahlborg owns Ahlborg Tire & Auto in Green Bay and has been in the business nearly 40 years. Peterson is a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher at Edison Middle School in Green Bay and retired after 35 years of teaching in June. Coach Peterson is in an assisted living facility in Green Bay and still loves to talk about the “good old days.”

Even though the run to the state title was four decades ago, the guys won’t forget their experiences anytime soon.

“It was just magical,” Grady said. “To go 19-2, and we didn’t seem like that good of ballclub but we just played good, solid baseball.”