Normally, athletes are advised to eat a good meal and get plenty of rest the night before a big game. The Verona Cavaliers took a slightly different approach before their first-round Home Talent League playoff game against Dodgeville last Sunday.
"We were all together at a bachelor party, and most of these guys didn't get home until 3:30 or 4 in the morning," says Dale Burgenske, the team's general manager. "We went paint-balling in Waterloo and everyone, including myself, is all battered and bruised from getting shot. We had a cookout in the afternoon and then we took 22 guys on a bus up to the normal bachelor party run in Wisconsin Dells."
Barely 12 hours later, the Cavaliers capped a thrilling, come-from-behind, 7-5 victory behind the kind of offensive production that has become their trademark in one of the most competitive amateur baseball leagues in the state. Down 5-3 in the bottom of the eighth, third baseman Matt Peetz and shortstop Derek Burgenske, both lefties, hit back-to-back singles, igniting a rally that produces four runs, sealing Dodgeville's fate.
Verona fans have come to expect such heroics. Derek Burgenske and Peetz shared HTL's regular season batting title this season, each hitting .500. Add .400 hitters Zach Spencer and Justin Scanlon, along with Derek Prochaska at .383, and the Cavaliers suit up HTL's most potent lineup every Sunday.
"We've had the best hitting team in the league the last six or seven years, and we want to continue to be known for our hitting," says Burgenske, father to both Derek and left fielder David, the groom-to-be.
That reputation is not only intimidating to opponents, it generates the kind of confidence that keeps players calm, even when facing a deficit late in a game.
"We've been in four or five games where we've had to come back this year," Derek Burgenske says after Sunday's game. "In the past couple years, I'm not sure we would have been able to do it. We'd get down and get on each other. But it's a different team this year. We're more relaxed."
Verona has advanced to the HTL's final four round-robin tournament in five of the last seven years, but has not been able to wrap up a championship. So far in 2008, they have claimed the regular season Western Section title, finishing with a 14-2 record, and won the Wisconsin state championship in a tournament sanctioned by the National Baseball Congress. An HTL title would put a nice finish on a constructive summer, but the Cavaliers aren't looking too far ahead.
"It's not one game at a time," says Peetz, eschewing baseball's most notorious cliché. "It's one pitch at a time, really. If we look too far down the road, we're going to get beat. But if we play our game, execute the things we need to, getting guys on, getting them over and getting them in, the rest takes care of itself."
To many local sports fans, the Home Talent League is completely off the radar. But each Sunday at 1 p.m., 42 teams representing towns within a 70-mile radius of Madison play fiercely competitive, nine-inning games. As many as 500 fans gather in the bleachers or on lawn chairs to cheer their teams on and catch up on the local gossip.
A lot of the players were high school stars some in multiple sports -- who went on to play Division-III college ball at places like UW-Platteville or Edgewood. Generations of families are often represented on team rosters, as is the case with the Burgenskes and Prochaskas (coach Dan and catcher Derek) with Verona.
"Half of my guys have been playing together since Little League," says Dale Burgenske. "They've got a couple of state championships, and the nucleus has really stayed together. Those are the ones I wanted to stay with me because I know that they know the game, they understand it, they're mentally prepared and most of the time they get the job done."
Getting that job done at the plate to the degree Verona has is particularly remarkable. Playing competitive baseball at nearly every other level American Legion, college, even with the Madison Mallards means dedicating some time every day to hitting, whether it's off a tee or against a machine or live pitching in a batting cage. But Home Talent players are starting careers and families. Baseball has made the transition to hobby, albeit a very active hobby, for them.
"They only hit on Thursdays and Sundays," says Dale Burgenske. "That's the important thing to remember about Home Talent. They've got all those other distractions. But we prepare. I expect them to work really hard before the game, then we play hard, and then we have fun afterwards."
And the camaraderie generated by that approach could be just as big a part of the Cavaliers' success as anything else.
"We've got a bull's-eye. We always do, right on our back," says Peetz. "People want to beat us, and you just have to know that and relax and accept the pressure and make it fun."