It's a great time to be an athlete at West Salem High School.
Over the last nine months, the football team made an impressive debut in the Mississippi Valley Conference last fall, going 5-2 record under first-year head coach Justin Jehn.
Over the winter months, the boys basketball team nearly qualified for the state tournament for the first time in school history, falling short in the sectional finals under first-year head coach Jake Merrill.
Then just last week, the baseball team advanced to the state baseball tournament for the eighth time in school history, but for the first time in the spring. The Panthers were a summer program until 2012, and have overcome criticism and heartbreak in the sectional playoffs to reach the big stage once more.
Head coach Chuck Ihle is in his 30th year as skipper for the Panthers. He has led six teams to the state tournament, but all of them during the summer. He said it means a lot to him personally to finally reach Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton.
"The very first time that we got to state, it meant a lot to me," Ihle said. "In the back of your mind, are you able to break through and make it on the biggest venue in high school competition? Once you've achieved that you kind of relax as a coach. To make it this year, I'm happy for the kids."
The kids are a talented group of seniors, juniors and sophomores that have enjoyed more athletic success than most at West Salem. A number of players on the team were part of the postseason success on the other sports, and are happy their goals set as freshmen are paying off.
"It's a good feeling to finally kind of prove them wrong," Nick La Fleur said. "We set an expectation to get to state in basketball or baseball or something since we've been freshmen. So it feels good to finally achieve what we've been going after for all four years."
Winning is not new for these players, but advancing to state is. Since becoming a spring baseball program in 2012, West Salem has seen its season end in the sectionals once and twice in the regionals against Viroqua, who went on to finish state runner-up in 2014. This season, West Salem beat the Blackhawks in the regionals, then topped Prescott and Hayward in the sectionals to advance to state.
"This is new to a lot of these kids, this is new to all the kids," Ihle said. "They haven't made it to state before. So this is just a great opportunity for them to enjoy themselves and to be rewarded for the hard work they've put in throughout four years here for sure."
West Salem will face Milwaukee Lutheran Wednesday afternoon in the first of two division 2 semifinal games. The game, played at Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium, is scheduled for 6:00 p.m.