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By Rob Reischel
Sports Editor 

Overdue change

WIAA ends summer baseball


March 8, 2018

File photo

Jake Pope and Sauk Prairie's baseball team will welcome several new teams to the spring season in 2019.

For more than 50 years now, the WIAA would crown state baseball champions every spring.

Roughly six weeks later, the WIAA would hold a second state tournament and identify a summer champion.

This odd practice began in 1965, when the WIAA felt it was necessary to have both spring and summer baseball seasons. For the last several years, Wisconsin was the only state in the union to have some of its teams play in the spring and the rest play in the summer.

Thankfully, this antiquated, outdated set-up will soon come to an end.

The WIAA Board of Control unanimously voted to end summer baseball last week. Its final season and last state tournament will be this summer, then a move to only spring ball begins in 2019.

"It's time," said Middleton coach Tom Schmitt said, who has led the Cardinals to seven state tournaments and the 2003 spring state title in 15 seasons. "It's definitely overdue.

"I think it's going to be a really good thing for our sport to crown one true champion instead of wondering if the spring team could beat the summer team or vice versa."

Mount Horeb coach Ryan Finley agreed.

"I think it's great for Wisconsin High School baseball," Finley said. "The quality of play has gone up dramatically in Wisconsin recently and this will make the playoffs and state championships even more exciting."

That's for sure.

In recent years, travel teams have taken a bite out of schools that play summer baseball. Four years ago, staple schools like Arrowhead, Waukesha Catholic Memorial and Slinger made the move to spring ball.

In the last six months, others such as Oak Creek, Brookfield Central, Brookfield East, Homestead, Milwaukee Marquette, Menomonee Falls, Franklin, Muskego, Greendale, West Allis Central, West Allis Hale, Mukwonago and Kettle Moraine all announced plans to move to summer ball in upcoming seasons.

There will be 50 teams playing summer baseball in 2018. But that number is projected to dip below 30 by the 2019-'20 season.

At its peak, the number of summer baseball programs reached 110 in 1990. But with its future clearly on life support, the WIAA decided to pull the plug.

"The vote is not a surprise to me," Scott Holler, the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association vice president and head baseball coach at Oak Creek told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "There were still some schools out there that didn't want the change, and that's understandable. 

"Change isn't always easy, and there will be additional work and challenges involved for all of us. But it's the right move, and our program is excited about it and I know many other programs are, as well."

They should be.

For 53 years now, people have asked who would win a game between the spring and summer champs. By June, 2019, those questions will end.

The WIAA, one of the slower moving, stuck-in-the-mud outfits you'll ever find, made this decision relatively quickly. And amazingly, they got it right.

That's just part one of the puzzle, though.

Spring baseball has had four divisions since 2006 with eight Division 1 teams qualifying for state, and four each in Divisions 2, 3 and 4. Summer baseball has always had just one division and one champion.

Many are wondering when spring and summer merge, if baseball will set up a format like basketball has.

The WIAA, which has always championed the small schools, took its boys and girls basketball tournaments from four divisions to five in 2011. When the WIAA did that, it cut its Division 1 state qualifiers from eight teams to four.

Could baseball be next?

"It will be interesting to see what changes might happen with the state tournament," Finley said.

The basketball model has dramatically hurt attendance and overall interest at the state tournament.

From 1991-2010, the boys and girls state basketball tournaments had four Division 1 quarterfinal games on Thursday's opening day. Fans would pour in to see some of the biggest and brightest stars the state had to offer.

But since the WIAA went to five divisions, its slate of games on opening day now features two semifinal games in both Division 4 and 5. For the most part, fans have given that move a collective thumbs down and stayed away.

Many baseball coaches are hoping the WIAA doesn't add another division to their tournament like it did to basketball.

"I sure hope not," Schmitt said. "It'd be nice if they left Division 1 alone, and with all of these new teams, we'd really strengthen it. I certainly don't think we need any more divisions."

I agree wholeheartedly with Schmitt. The last thing paying customers need is another watered down state tournament with inferior games.

The current model - with and influx of standout programs primarily from the Milwaukee-area - would make the state tournament stronger than ever.

The WIAA surprised many of us last week by merging the two baseball seasons into one. Let's hope they continue to bat 1.000, and leave the divisions alone, as well.


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