Second life has been good for UW-La Crosse

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UW-La Crosse would have missed out on some great baseball moments in the past seven seasons if the administration had succeeded in eliminating the program in 2009.
Photo by Steve Frommell,

By Erik Buchinger

GRAND CHUTE, Wis. -- After losing to Cortland in the title game last season, UW-La Crosse has returned to the NCAA Division III World Series. Seven years ago, the Eagles were in jeopardy of losing the baseball program entirely.

Facing budget cuts in 2009, UW-La Crosse administration decided it would eliminate the baseball program, which has more than 70 years of existence.

“I got a phone call one evening about a week or two after the season was over with,” said Chris Schwarz, who is now in his 12th season as the Eagles’ head coach. “I got a phone call from our athletic director at the time the baseball team would be cut.”

For Schwarz, the phone conversation stunned him.

“I was in a little bit of shock,” Schwarz said. “At the beginning, it took a couple days to kind of shift focus to say, ‘Let’s fight and make this happen,’ so of course there were some emotions and some worries right away.”

When he heard the news, Schwarz said his immediate thought was his players who have been committed to the La Crosse baseball program.

“The first thing that came to mind was the players,” Schwarz said. “I just thought 'what are they going to do?' ”

“Pretty quickly, I started fielding phone calls from alums and friends of the program, but the person that really lifted me up was an old coach from back in the 70s, Billy Terry,” Schwarz said.

Terry was the head coach of the La Crosse baseball team from 1968-79.

“Bill was the one who kind of lifted me up and was like, ‘No we’re going to fight this, and we’re going to do what we can to save the program,’” Schwarz said. “We had a little meeting, and fortunately campus administration allowed us the opportunity to raise some funds.”

Initially, the goal was to raise money so the team could have one final season to let the seniors finish their careers and let the others transfer out if they chose to.

“Then we kept fighting and found a way for a five-year plan, and we kept on the fundraising,” Schwarz said. “And leading the charge was Wild Bill Terry. He really helped us out a lot making phone calls to a lot of the old guys that played back in the 70s.”

Schwarz said a lot of the money came from anonymous donors and local businesses in the community.

After it was announced that the program would be reinstated, Schwarz said he was relieved that he no longer had to think about the La Crosse community losing its university’s baseball team.

Off and running

Since UW-La Crosse faced elimination, the program has been on one of the best runs in its history.

Year W-L Pct.  Finish
2010 16-22  .421  Missed WIAC tournament 
2011 24-15  .615  Missed WIAC tournament 
2012 34-11 .756 Went 1-2 in regional
2013 21-21 .500  Went 3-2 in WIAC tournament 
2014 26-18 .591  Went 0-2 in regional 
2015 36-16 .692 Reached championship series
2016 39-9 .813 TBA at D-III World Series

“The best part about that whole situation is that we don’t think about it anymore,” Schwarz said. We’re on stable ground, and we’re not going anywhere.”

Since Schwarz and the La Crosse baseball program have moved on from the dark period of nearly being eliminated, La Crosse has improved not only financially but on the field as well, reaching the NCAA Division III playoffs in four of the past five years, including consecutive World Series appearances.

“I don’t wish that experience on any baseball program in the country or other sports program in the country,” Schwarz said.

“There’s no way anybody should have to go through that, but we are better off now than we were before it happened.”

Schwarz said another tournament run has been a great experience for this team.

“Obviously, there’s the experience of being here for the players, and it has helped us out a lot on the recruiting front,” Schwarz said. “A lot of support again from community and the alums has really put us on the map in the baseball world. Being here again this year is a good thing for our program. Obviously we’re not done. We’re here to win it, but it’s a great experience and a great boost for any program.”

Schwarz said he rarely thinks about the scare that occurred in the spring of 2009 and appreciates the community support that ultimately kept the La Crosse baseball program in existence.

“We don’t have any worries anymore,” Schwarz said. “We don’t have to think about it, but yeah, every once in a while, I think back to how close we were to not even being here. I’m just very thankful for all the people that stepped up to keep us going.”