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Fallen teammate drives Rats' run to state

Jeff Schultz's No. 24 Hudson River Rats jersey hangs on the fence in the Rats dugout during a game against the Bay City Bombers July 26. Schultz, who played for the River Rats since the team's inception in 2000, died 11 days earlier at his home in New Brighton, Minn., at the age of 38. Bob Burrows photo

Before the Hudson River Rats take the field for the opener of the Wisconsin Baseball Association State Championship Tournament Friday night, August 14 in Haugen, Rats' manager Chris LaBreche will unfold a neatly-pressed No. 24 Rats' jersey and hang it in the team's dugout.

LaBreche has performed the ritual before every Rats game since July 15. That's the day original Rats' player Jeff Schultz died at the age of 38.

Since then the Rats have won nine of 10 games, including two over the weekend in Eau Claire to earn a berth in the WBA State Finals for the second time in team history.

"Without Jeff, the Rats would more than likely never have come into existence, and they will never be the same without him," LaBreche said about his former teammate on the very first River Rats team in 2000. "His spirit, his determination, and his energy however, have proven to drive the squad far into the playoffs in 2009. We only hope we can bring it in for the big win in memory of Jeff."

The Rats will kick off the 2009 WBA State Finals against another St. Croix Valley Baseball League team--the Prescott Pirates--Friday at 6:30 p.m. in Haugen. They advanced to the state finals with a 10-0, seven-inning win over the Bayside Vipers Saturday and a 12-5 victory over the Spooner Cardinals Sunday at Carson Park in Eau Claire.

Jason Hollar and Paul Ruppert went deep in the win over Bayside while Jason Bast and Hollar hit home runs Sunday against Spooner. Bast and Ruppert were both teammates of Schultz's on the original 2000 Rats' team and played together on the Rats' state championship team of 2002, the last year Hudson qualified for the state finals.

The Rats will look to the memory of Schultz for inspiration when they try to repeat the feat this weekend. LaBreche said his hard-nosed attitude on the field, and soft-spoken nature off it, provided an idea example to his teammates.

"He reveled in plays at second base and never backed away from sliding in hard at a fielder," LaBreche said. "He did, however, always play cleanly and never took any cheap shots at an opponent. Off the field he was a relatively quiet and passionate student of the game, always offering advice if requested but never out of turn."

Schultz was a second baseman early in his Rats' career, earning the team's Defensive Player of the Year award in 2000, before moving to first and third base. He later saw time at shortstop and the outfield. His last full-time season with the team was in 2007, but he continued to be a part-time player right up until the time of his death. He collected a hit and two RBI in his only appearance with the Rats this season May 16 against Chaseburg-Coon Valley.

"Schultz's annual attendance at the Plum City Memorial Day Tournament was looked upon fondly by many of the younger Rats, who only played a handful of games with Jeff," LaBreche said. "He served as a model of performance on the field and a model of sportsmanship off the field."

In the other state final game Friday night, the hometown Haugen Knights, who qualified by edging River Falls, 4-3, Sunday, will face the La Crosse Athletics at 9 p.m.

Saturday's action includes the Rib Lake Lakers and the La Crescent Cardinals at 10:30 a.m. and the defending WBA champion Eau Claire Bears facing the Hallie Eagles at 1 p.m.

The state tournament semifinals will be played at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, August 15 with the championship game scheduled for noon on Sunday, all at Haugen Ball Park.

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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