It could be safe to say that veteran Menomonee Falls baseball coach Pat Hansen is playing with house money.
His team, behind 2016 state player of the year, University of Illinois ace and Major League draft pick Ty Weber, won dramatic WIAA state titles in both 2015 and 2016.
Weber and a vast group of his friends and teammates are gone to seek their futures in college and elsewhere, so it could be natural of one to think that Hansen could just look at this season as a reloading campaign.
Just coach up the kids and see what can be accomplished.
But as he sat in the Indians’ Trenary Field dugout watching the rain after Falls dropped a tough, 4-2 Greater Metro Conference decision to league leader and rival Oak Creek on Thursday, June 22, Hansen wasn’t thinking about reloading or all the injuries that have slowed the 12-7 team.
He was in his normal mode of “What could have we done better to win this game?”
“I really don’t feel any different than I did five years ago (before the state titles),” he said. “Maybe I’m wound just a little too tight (chuckles). It’s the same deal as always with me. I want the guys to show that they can compete night-in-and-night-out.
“Some days we do that and others I wonder what the heck is going on.”
The loss against 17-1 Creek fell to in the former category in Hansen’s mind and no doubt so did the intense 2-1 GMC victory over Franklin tonight (June 23) that improved the Indians league mark to 8-6.
Not bad for a team that sometimes features three sophomores out of the first four positions in the batting order.
First year pitcher Ben Heitman got the win against Franklin and his brother Alex didn’t do badly in the loss to Creek the night before.
They are part of a heavily restructured line-up that has not only had to deal with the large graduation losses but also to injuries to returning all-state shortstop Nick Gile as well as starting catcher Ryan Spalding and third baseman Tommy Howard.
Gile’s knee injury has prevented him from playing all season and also took an effective pitcher out of the line-up too.
Those issues have left Falls with only four players with any degree of real experience from last year, including returning state semifinal winning pitcher Logan Roble, outfielder Cole Mir, infielder Ryan Piontek and utility player Jake Sutherland.
Hansen sees development, even in as tough a loss as the one to Oak Creek, where the Indians had the tieing run at the plate in the seventh before falling.
“We’ve had some games where we haven’t played very smart baseball,” he said, “but I liked the way we played tonight. Sometimes its not all about how you played but what the other team did too.”
Both were the case against Creek, as the Knights took advantage of three hits and two stolen bases to score twice in the first inning off Alex Heitman.
Falls manufactured a run in the bottom of the frame as Sutherland got on through a bunt single, advanced to second on a wild pitch and then scored on a throwing error on Knights’ pitcher Ben Ellifson on an attempted pick-off at second.
But the Oak Creek defense stifled the Indians’ threat as with two out and a man on second, Roble singled but Oak Creek leftfielder Gunnar Doyle made a great throw to the plate to nail the runner for the final out.
Two innings later, the Knights put across two more runs on four hits, three of them with two out to make it 4-1.
Piontek came in in relief of Heitman in the fifth and put down nine of the 10 batters he faced.
Meanwhile Falls had runners on first and second in both the fourth and fifth but could not score. In the fifth, the Knights were close to turning an inning-ending double play, the ball got away from first baseman Bobby Smith on the finish, but he was able to recover and throw out the Falls runner at home for the final out of the frame.
But Falls was not done yet. Piontek doubled with one out in the seventh and scored on Danny Knutson’s single, but Ellifson recovered and got a fielder’s choice and a groundout to end the game.
Knights’ coach Scott Holler, who has won state titles himself with the Knights, was relieved to get out of Falls with a win.
“We’ve struggled coming out here in the past,” he said. “For whatever reason we just don’t hit the ball well here and the Falls’ kids always have a great approach to the game. I was not comfortable until the final out.”
Sutherland had three hits and Roble two for Falls. Hansen was pleased with the effort if not the outcome.
“We had a lot of opportunities but we couldn’t quite cash in,” he said. “The kids showed me something tonight. We try to preach what we always have. Pitchers throw strikes and defense pick up the ball.
“We showed we could handle a tough team. The only thing I would have liked more is just a few more hits in big situations.”