JANESVILLE—Victor Herbst plugged Janesville Craig's top battery in backwards.
The Cougars' head baseball coach didn't have much of a choice.
Nick Blomgren played most of his life as an infielder and pitcher. And Alex Marro grew up as a standout catcher, but injuries took their toll and cost him the better part of two high school seasons.
By this, the duo's senior year, Marro's best bet was to step in as Craig's top pitcher. And Blomgren, thrust into the role of full-time catcher as a junior, was back behind the plate.
“When I was younger I caught a little bit, but usually I played shortstop or third base,” Blomgren said. “I just started catching last year full-time. I kind of just got the role of what you have to do, how big of a role you have. You have to be a leader out there.
“It's a lot of hard work that goes into catching.”
Blomgren was willing to put in that work, and it paid off.
He was one of the critical leaders for a Cougars team that won the WIAA Division 1 state championship—the fourth in program history.
And for his efforts behind the plate, at it while batting and on the mound in late-game situations, Blomgren is The Gazette's 2015 area player of the year.
“He was pretty raw when he started … and really had to work hard in the transition from playing infield to playing catcher,” said Craig assistant Pat Campbell, to whom Blomgren credits in helping with that process.
“Nobody is a harder worker than Nick. He was willing to put in the time all offseason with the drill work. He's a pretty darn good catcher now. I expect him to go down (to Division I High Point University) and compete for playing time right away.”
Campbell said Blomgren brought all the necessary skills to the table—including an impressive arm that kept would-be base-stealers at bay over the past two seasons.
But Blomgren put in work blocking pitches, perfecting his footwork and transitioning the ball from his glove to his throwing hand.
Blomgren also credited a couple of former teammates and coaches on his travel team, Team DiMarini.
“One of the hardest things was to get really flexible,” Blomgren said. “A lot goes into catching—receiving, throwing, blocking. There's so much that goes into it, and I didn't even know it.
“Coach Campbell helped me this offseason and during the season. I kind of worked on it before but couldn't really figure it out.”
The latter statement is a bit modest, as Blomgren was named first-team all-Big Eight Conference a year ago.
He backed it up with another selection this year and almost surely would have been a top all-state selection at catcher if not for Verona's Ben Rortvedt, who is considered one of the top catchers in the country, blocking his way at the all-district level.
At the plate this year, Blomgren hit .405 with an on-base percentage north of .600 thanks to 22 walks and 11 hit-by-pitches. He posted eight doubles, two home runs and 26 RBI. He scored six runs, though most of the time gave way to a courtesy runner.
“I just tried to get on. I don't think I really tried to do too much,” Blomgren said. “I wasn't trying to be selfish, just trying to get on because I had people behind me like Kevin Brandt and JT Smithback.
“People would run for me and steal bases, so I just wanted to get on.”
And Blomgren still saw time on the mound, often closing out big games. He didn't allow a run in 13 innings and finished with a 3-0 record and two saves—including one in a 2-0 victory over Kimberly in the state title game.
Perhaps above all, Blomgren says he worked on being a better leader as a senior, and it showed.
“He was a great mentor to my son (freshman catcher Jake Campbell),” Pat Campbell said. “If he ever had a rough day or a rough at-bat, he let it go and turned his focus to the team. He was one of the main reasons we had the success we had.”
With his work ethic in tow, it wouldn't be a surprise to see that success continue at the Division I college level.
But Blomgren will always savor a senior season in which he and his teammates—and younger brother, Jack—etched their names into Janesville Craig history.
“I just look back at all the hard work we put in this season and the camaraderie we had together as a team,” he said. “We worked so hard in the offseason and during the season. We deserved everything we got, and I'm just so proud of my teammates.”