The 18-1 Oak Creek baseball team’s 4-2 road victory over rival and two-time WIAA state champion Menomonee Falls on June 22 was a perfect example of how the largely rebuilt Knights have succeeded this summer.
In short, the veterans earned the Knights the lead but it was the newcomers who made it stick as they pulled off a win against a team that they’ve always had problems with at a place (Falls’ Trenary Field), where they’ve always had a hard time scoring runs,
“We’ve struggled coming out here in the past,” coach Scott Holler 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.”
A feeling that made this win all the more satisfying.
To be perfectly honest, the always powerful Oak Creek program was supposed to be in a state of transition this season. Yes, they still had junior shortstop and all-state Louisville recruit Alex Binelas back plus others like senior catcher Ben Stanke, senior WBCA All-Star outfielder Luke Posig and senior infielder Matt Kasar.
But 10 seniors, including powerful, multi-year performers like D.J. Ellifson, Matt Hamilton, Gannon Goldensoph, and Joey Richter, plus the majority of the pitching was gone from the 31-3 2016 Greater Metro Conference regular season and tournament champions that had also advanced to the WIAA state semifinals.
Those holes left a lot of opportunities for a lot of new faces to make their mark and they have done so impressively.
The Knights, who also belted Kettle Moraine in a nonconference game on June 24 and also had Holler and Posig take part in the WBCA All-Star Classic this weekend, enter next week at 13-1 in GMC play, two games ahead of 2016 WIAA state runner-up Marquette (10-3).
As noted, the veterans got the Knights the lead against Falls as Stanke had an RBI single and Posig an RBI double in the first. Two stolen bases helped the effort.
But Falls closed the gap in the bottom of the first after a bunt single, a wild pitch and a throwing error on an attempted pick-off play plated a run.
Furthermore, junior starter Ben Ellifson, D.J.’s little brother, walked the next batter and with two out, that man was standing on second representing the tieing run.
The Indians’ Logan Roble then roped a single to left, but freshman outfielder Gunnar Doyle cleanly picked the ball and came up throwing, hitting Stanke with a perfect strike at the plate to end the inning.
Oak Creek padded the lead in the third as they came up with three, two-out hits, including RBI singles from Posig and senior first baseman Bobby Smith (who is also new to the starting line-up) that made the score 4-1.
In the interim, Ben Ellifson, a newcomer to the rotation this season, settled in and showed more than a touch of nerve.
He got a ground-out to third to end a two-on rally in the third, put down the last three batters in the fourth after giving up back-to-back singles to start the frame and then relied on his defense to again bail him out of another two-on Indian threat in the fifth.
A ground ball turned into a unique inning doubleplay in the fifth as after Oak Creek got the force at second, the relay to first was late and dropped by Smith. The lead Falls runner kept going from second in an attempt to score but Smith alertly picked up the ball and threw home to Stranke to nail the runner at the plate.
Ben Ellifson then weathered a one-out double and an RBI single in the seventh as a fielder’s choice and pop-out to third ended the game.
Holler said that Ben Ellifson hung in there well despite the numerous threats. He scattered eight hits with two walks and two strikeouts.
“He was very solid,” said Holler. “He doesn’t walk a lot of people and is one of the most consistent pitchers we have. He’s not a big strikeout guy, but he does have three or four pitches he can use effectively.
“He’s pitched several big games for us, he throws strikes and he has confidence.”
Ben Ellifson’s mental toughness was indicative of how the team is blending well together, said Holler. The Knights dropped their first game of the season two days earlier to GMC foe Brookfield East (6-5) and wanted to bounce back.
“We really needed this,” he said. “In the ebb and flow of the season, the East game was one of those little bumps in the road. The question for us was how were we going to answer that. Did we want to lose our second game in a row or did we want to bounce back?”
The answer as it has been many times this season for Oak Creek, was the positive one.