NEENAH, Wis. (NBC 26) — Neenah baseball hasn't won a conference title since 1976, but the Rockets believe that drought is meant to be broken.
The Rockets finished third in the Fox Valley Association last spring, but they say this year feels different.
"The focus is completely different from years past," senior standout Gradin Taschner, the reigning FVA Player of the Year, said. "Our team goal is to try to take conference this year.
"For some people it may be a hefty goal," he said. "We think it's very reasonable this year."
The Neenah basketball team might have said the same thing back in November.
But just last month, the Rockets brought home their first gold ball in boys basketball since 1978. Senior Carter Thomas, a key player on both teams, sees some similarities.
"At the beginning of the season not a lot of people thought we would get to the point that we did," he said of Neenah's basketball team. "I feel like we can relate that to baseball.
"Nobody thinks that Neenah baseball is going to do anything," Thomas added. "It would be pretty awesome if we proved them wrong."
Coaching should help.
Former MLB pitcher Jack Taschner is now in his fourth season at the helm. He's got the program on the right track, but said it hasn't been a walk in the park.
"It's been extremely difficult," Taschner said. "It's probably the most difficult thing I've ever undertaken besides parenting, which doesn't come with a manual."
The Racine native starred at UW Oshkosh, then an NCAA Division III powerhouse, before going on to play six MLB seasons with four different teams.
"After playing at that level and then trying to come down and be reasonable about expectations you forget sometimes where you started," Taschner said. "I think my first year, the coach that I was, I wasn't happy with it. I didn't like how I responded to things and I learned from that."
Despite his time in the majors, Neenah players describe Taschner as down to earth.
"He's not one of those big leaguers who's like, 'Oh I played in the big leagues, I'm better than everyone,'" senior pitcher Jaeden Carstens said. "He's a good guy, he's a good coach."
"I think he's very witty," Gradin Taschner, Jack's son, said. "He's a young soul.
"He plays around like a kid, messes around," Gradin added. "But when it's time to focus up and get stuff done he's right there on point."
The elder Taschner joked that a journeyman pitcher like him shouldn't have to worry about his ego.
"Over the six years when you're an obscure lefty reliever it's pretty easy (to be humble)," he laughed.
Now, he's using that same humility to keep his players grounded. While Neenah players said they have a chip on their shoulders, Taschner downplayed it.
"We have done nothing to earn that kind of respect," he said. "We have chased Hortonville and Kimberly for years. I'd like to think we can give them a run this year.
"You know they're going to come strong, they always do," Taschner added. "But I think we have a good chance of really making a run at something."
One curveball this season: Gradin Taschner will not pitch; he will only serve as the Rockets designated hitter. Taschner had Tommy John surgery in August and is still recovering.
He hopes to be back to full strength by the time he starts his college career at Illinois State.