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'Built to win': How Kaukauna softball's youth program sets players up for high school success

Five state titles and a state-record 108 consecutive wins from 2021-24. Kaukauna has set the standard for softball in Wisconsin, and that success begins well before the players hit high school.
Posted at 4:45 PM, Jul 04, 2024

KAUKAUNA (NBC 26) — They're one of the most dominant high school teams in Wisconsin history.

Since 2000, Kaukauna softball boasts five state championships, 13 Fox Valley Association titles, and a state-record 108 consecutive wins - four shy of the national record - from 2021-24; that streak was snapped last month in the state semifinals.

The Galloping Ghosts have been historically good, and that success begins well before the players reach the varsity level.

  • Head coach Tim Roehrig took over Kaukauna's softball program following the 1999 season.
  • Through fundraising and player outreach, Roehrig reinvigorated the town's youth program, which now features players as young as five years old.
  • Roehrig said he works hard to identity top talent early, helping to mold each player's skills and her passion for the sport.
  • The Ghosts youth program focuses on playing top-tier talent from around the Midwest; teams often travel out of the state to do so.

Kaukauna is no stranger to winners.
Jordan McCabe's high-flying basketball teams won two state championships - in 2016 and 2018.

The Ghosts wrestling teams, coached by Jeff Matczak, have won an incredible eight team state championships since 2014.

But in the spring and summertime, "The Electric City" is a softball town.

"I started playing around seven years old," 12U pitcher Micha Matthies said. "I did it because I wanted to be like my sister."

"We have lots of tournaments," Emily Thoreson, a shortstop on the 12U team, said. "We look up to the varsity and want to do what they do."

The passion for the sport runs deep. Those around it say that can be traced back to one man.

"I think it started with Tim Roehrig once he took over the program," Travis DeValk, a parent and coach of the Ghosts 12U team, said.

Tim Roehrig Kaukauna
Tim Roehrig took over as Kaukauna's varsity softball coach following the 1999 season.

Roehrig took over as Kaukauna's varsity head coach following the 1999 season.

At that point, the Ghosts had just one FVA championship on their mantle.

"Our youth program had only 46 kids playing softball," Roehrig said.

"We, from a financial standpoint, were not in a good spot," he added. "I addressed that and we started fundraising our little butts off. I sold poinsettias door to door."

25 years, 538 wins and five state championships later, the Galloping Ghosts are synonymous with softball.

Roehrig believes it all starts with the town's youth program; Kaukauna Ghosts Fastpitch features 8U, 10U, 12U and 14U teams, with some players as young as five years old.

"We get them started early," Roehrig said. "They are sponges at that age. I kind of joke with everybody every year that I'm not going to be happy until they are born with a glove on and I kind of think that's holding true yet today."

FLASHBACK: Kaukauna softball wins 3rd straight state title in 2023

As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect.

"A practice is a practice and you're going there to get better," DeValk said of his 12U team. "You're not going there to just see your friends."

But Roehrig believes the real improvement comes from the competition his teams face.

"We push them into some of the biggest baddest tournaments we can find," he said.

"We're going to lose," Roehrig added. "I'd rather lose by ten and let them feel like they've got to get better. And I think that's a paradigm that is very different than a lot of other programs in the state."

The schedule isn't limited to just spring and summer.

"There's teams that will just pick up their mitt in April and play until the middle of August and call it a season," DeValk said. "That doesn't happen here."

Some Kaukauna players and teams travel to tournaments year-round. Often, they are the only school-based team surrounded by dozens of club and all-star squads.

"There are girls (on our teams) who go play other sports. That's great," Roehrig said. "We take the players who aren't playing other sports and we're playing in winter.

"We're going to find tournaments somewhere in a dome or we're going to find tournaments south and we're going."

Roehrig works to identify top talent at an early age, particularly targeting players with speed.

"I think there are too many programs built to win at young ages and not built to win when they're older," Roehrig said.

Kaukauna, on the other hand, is content with sacrificing success at the youth level if it means those players will improve by the time they reach high school.

"A lot of our younger kids if they're fast… we're already moving them to the left side (of the plate)," Roehrig said.

"I have to explain that to parents sometimes," he said. "She's going to be bad for now. We know that. It does not matter to us."

"When she's older, she's going to be lights out," he added.

That's a sacrifice players like Thoreson and Matthies are willing to make in hopes of one day carrying on the Kaukauna tradition.

"It helps me get better," Thoreson said. "Our coaches push our to the best version of ourselves."

While most of the Galloping Ghosts' talent is homegrown, Roehrig acknowledged there are occasionally players interested in transferring in from other schools.

He said, in that case, nothing is guaranteed for those players and he doesn't talk with them until they are enrolled at Kaukauna.