Veteran Homestead baseball coach Ernie Millard was taking a deep breath after his Highlanders’ dramatic eight-inning 3-2 victory over long-time rival Germantown Tuesday night when he looked around his host’s lovely and historic Ritzenthaler Dream Field.
He knows he and his team won’t be coming here nearly as often in the foreseeable future, as conference realignment will take Germantown away to the Greater Metro next school year while Homestead will remain in the North Shore.
But Millard, Germantown coach Jeff Wolf and Whitefish Bay coach Jay Wojcinski (whose team will also stay in the North Shore), are long-time friends, consoling each other after tough losses, sharing joyous toasts after major triumphs and always, always wanting to beat each other’s brains out when they play each other.
And don’t look for that to stop next year just because of a demographic change.
“Jeff and I have talked about it,” said Millard. “The conference rivalry will end, but not the relationship. He’s one of the best friends I’ve got in the coaching ranks and we and Woj (Wojcinski) like to get together on and off the field.
“So, that is not going to change, besides, this (Ritzenthaler Dream Field) is a great place to play. When it was put together (many years ago by retired Warhawks’ coach Chuck Ritzenthaler) I thought it was the jewel in the crown (in the conference).
“Things have changed a little over the years, but it’s clear the field has gotten some loving in the last few years and it looks really nice. I really like Rennicke (the Highlanders’ home field) for its ambiance but as far as natural grass fields go I really love coming to Cedarburg and here.”
Wolf is equally sentimental about the relationship and doesn’t want to see it die out either.
“We’re going to make sure we have them on our non-conference schedule,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to see it end. We’ve built such great relationships here and we’re really going to miss them.”
But the Warhawks (12-3 in North Shore play and 20-5 overall), who just happened to come off a dramatic last inning win over Whitefish Bay on Monday, June 26, won’t miss tough losses like this one to Millard’s Highlanders (8-6, 11-10).
A lot of what happened Tuesday night had to do with senior Homestead leftfielder Dylan Moser. One of what Millard calls “The great stories” on this year’s team, Moser preserved a 2-0 Homestead lead in the bottom of the sixth after Germantown junior Colten Thomas singled with two out.
Connor Stoming was steaming around third ready to score the Warhawks’ first run of the game, but Moser cleanly scooped up the ball and threw a one-hop rocket to the plate to catcher Andrew White who applied the tag on Stoming for the final out of the inning.
And then after Germantown turned in a dramatic effort to tie the score with two runs in the bottom of the seventh, Moser was at it again.
Senior Brad Woldt was issued a one-out walk and then advanced to second on a wild pitch. After another out, Moser, who had doubled earlier in the game, ripped a line-drive RBI single to put the Highlanders back ahead.
“I can’t say enough about Dylan in terms of his maturation,” Millard said. “It’s just a great story of personal growth.”
Sophomore Emory Weeden then came on for Panella in the bottom of the eighth and earned the save with two strikeouts and a flyout. Panella, who has struggled to regain his all-state form of a year ago, threw seven strong innings with three strikeouts and one walk.
“This was ‘Welcome back, Joe’ kind of game,” said Millard. “It instilled some confidence in him. It was also good that he knew he didn’t have to strike everyone out.”
Indeed, the Highlander defense overcame a few shaky moments, as in general, it picked up the ball and made the plays including a 6-4-3 doubleplay in the fourth.
Homestead took the lead in the first with the help of a dropped third strike, a walk and an error. White also had a big RBI single.
Germantown’s tieing effort in the seventh including a great run-scoring drag bunt by junior infielder Jayden Schaefer and a sacrifice fly by senior Dan Drinan.
“Jayden has such a high baseball IQ,” said Wolf. “Anytime we need a critical sacrifice or other big play, he tends to rise to the occasion.”
The loss also spoiled a good effort by senior pitcher Noah Imrie (7-1/3 innings, four strikeouts and three walks), who really settled in after that rocky first inning. Imrie missed the first month of the season because of a bout of appendicitis and is just now regaining his form.
“Noah did deserve better,” said Wolf. “We knew that runs would be tough to come by with Panella up there and it didn’t help we gave them a couple of runs in the first. But it was nice that we rallied behind Noah. It’s nice to have him back because we always know he’ll give us his ‘A’ game.”
It’s still been an encouraging season for the Warhawks, who are in a virtual tie for second in the North Shore behind powerful West Bend West.
“We thought it would be West and then everyone else, but guys have really played well,” he said. “We thought we would have some solid pitching and that we could hit the ball.”
Meanwhile, for a young Homestead team, which had to rally for a win over Port Washington the night before, tonight’s win was a good test.
“We’re still making mistakes,’ said Millard. “We do things right, we don’t have to play the eighth inning, but this was a huge character test. This is the most excited I’ve been all year because I’m starting to see that we’re doing things right on a consistent basis.
“I also like to talk about karma with this team, because if you’re doing things wrong, it will bite you in the butt, but if you’re doing things right, it will come around and help you.”