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THE DUCK POND – First-year Madison Mallards manager Darrell Handelsman was frank about his job description while chatting before the start of the 2003 season.

“I’m here to win games for the Mallards, and win them now,” Handelsman said.

Yet in the same breath, he said there would be no playoffs-or-else mantra.

Brought on board as only the second full-time skipper in the amateur Northwoods League, Handelsman offered no timetable for bringing postseason play to Madison for the first time since 1996.

It took him all of a season. Half of a season, to be precise.

The South Division first-half champion Mallards wrap up the regular season tonight in St. Cloud and begin a best-of-three divisional playoff series Sunday in Wausau vs. the Wisconsin Woodchucks. The winner moves on to the best-of-three championship series.

“I’m excited for our guys to get an opportunity just to play in that atmosphere,” said Handelsman, who led the Waterloo Bucks to the Northwoods League title a year ago. “For us, this is gravy.”We never expected in a million years to be in the situation we’re in. Now we’ve got to win four games to win the whole thing.”

The Woodchucks ran away with the second-half title and earned home-field advantage by virtue of the better overall record. Wisconsin boasts the most explosive offense in the league, topping the charts in batting average, home runs, runs, and walks.

The Mallards will rely on the league’s second-rated pitching staff. Brian Kroll (4-4, 2.27 ERA) will pitch the opener, while Corey Cabral (5-2, 1.72) will take the hill for Game 2 Monday at Warner Park.

“We’re two completely different teams,” Handelsman said. “They try to hit three-run homers and we try to play small ball. It’ll be a good matchup.

“I’d like it to be a 3-2, 2-1 game. We can’t get into a slugfest with those guys.”

After struggling a bit at the outset of the second half, the Mallards are (9-5) over the past two weeks.

“I think after you win the first half and you know you’re in the playoffs, for a while you’re kind of lackadaisical,” said right-handed reliever D.J. Roshone. “Things are starting to click at the right time.”