For the second time in three years, the River Falls Fighting Fish will travel to Rib Lake, about 30 miles north of Abbotsford, for the opening round of the Wisconsin Baseball Association playoffs.
The Fish drew the No. 1 seed in their bracket and will face the No. 4 seed Merrill Rangers Saturday at noon. Merrill finished 7-4 and tied for fifth place in the Dairyland League.
A win Saturday would put River Falls against either defending state champion and No. 2 seed, the Eau Claire Bears, or the No. 3 seed Rib Lake Lakers Sunday at noon.
Eau Claire won the Southern Division of the Chippewa River Baseball League with a record of 12-6 while Rib Lake finished fourth in the Dairyland with a mark of 8-3.
Two years ago the Fish lost their first round game in Rib Lake. Last year they came within a game of reaching the WBA finals before losing to Haugen in Ellsworth.
The Fish won the St. Croix Valley Baseball League championship this season with a record of 12-4, and player-manager Josh Eidem said he believes the team has what it takes to reach the WBA finals the following weekend in Tomahawk.
"We have such a great clubhouse," Eidem said. "You go from the rookie (Tyler) Hunter, who's still learning the game, to Brian Giebel and Ryan Gilbertson, who were upperclassmen captains at Stout this spring, to 30-something Nathan Brom, who typifies the grittiness of a town ball player, to Joe Paatalo, a 47-year-old published author, and we have about every type of guy you can think of. From what I see around the state, the chemistry of this team, on and off the field, just isn't matched in the WBA and is such a part of our success."
Clint Kempf leads the Fish in batting this season with an average of .395 and a team-high 26 runs batted in. Gilbertson is hitting .348 and Hunter is batting .346 while Giebel has an average of .345.
Paatalo, at .327, and Eidem, at .309, are both hitting over .300 while Marty Herum, who is hitting .368 in five games for the Fish this season, is expected to rejoin the team for its playoff run after getting the game-winning RBI in last Sunday's American Legion All-Star Game in Milwaukee.
On the mound, the Fish are led by lefty Rick Wells, who takes a 5-0 record and 1.02 earned run average into the playoffs. Wells has struck out 52 batters and walked just 12 in 44 innings pitched.
Seth Bugar (4-1, 3.68 ERA), Ryan Gilbertson (3-1, 2.08 ERA) and Dan Morgan (301, 3.68 ERA), also contribute to a deep Fish pitching staff.
"Every team that makes a deep run in the playoffs seems to have a really dominant number one pitcher, and for us that guy is Wells," Eidem said. "But then again, Dan Morgan and Ryan Gilbertson could both be number one pitchers, and Luke Meier and Seth Bugar could easily be number twos on good teams. We are lucky to have more pitching than we even have innings available, and all these guys -- Brandon Gilbertson and Greg Cheever too -- have been outstanding this year."
The Fish are one of seven SCVBL teams who will participate in the WBA playoffs this weekend. The Osceola Braves will play Cumberland Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Osceola, and the Ellsworth Hubbers will take on the Hallie Eagles Saturday at noon in Osceola. The Hudson River Rats also open the postseason in Osceola, Saturday at 6 p.m. against the Onalaska A's.
The Prescott Pirates will play Saturday at 6 p.m. in Haugen against the Sparta Millers, while the Menomonie Eagles face Taylor County Sausage Saturday at 6 p.m. in Rib Lake. The Plum City Blues will take on Whittlesey Reds Saturday at 6 p.m. in Ashland.
Two teams from each first round site will travel to Tomahawk for the WBA Championship Tournament Aug 20-22.