West Bend West baseball coach Bill Albrecht was breathing much easier after his team’s 7-3 WIAA sectional final victory over two-time state champion Menomonee Falls on Monday evening.
He had happily joined his team in the awards’ ceremonies afterwards, conducted interviews graciously and with class and was just grateful for a moment to splash water on his face.
His team has a chance to make real history at the state tournament at Kapco Park in Mequon on Friday, July 21 as they could become the first unbeaten team to win a WIAA crown in the 52-year history of the summer baseball competition.
But for him that’s still a long ways off.
“Yes, we’ve got a really nice team,” he said accepting a compliment, “but we still have a lot of work to do.”
But he’s happy to have these particular players be the ones to have this particular chance at history.
“Because they’re not only good ballplayers,” he said, “but they’re also nice kids who comport themselves well in public, the way you would want them too.”
That kind of recognition of the big picture, of seeing high school athletics for what it really is was on full display all day at the three-game sectional tourney at beautiful Cahill Park in Whitefish Bay.
There the kids and and coaches and fans from West, Falls, Homestead and Kewaskum got a chance to put on a demonstration of what they’ve learned from sports since the time all of them first swung a bat and missed in tee-ball.
There was personal growth and development, and learning how to work with others to achieve a worthwhile goal.
There was the recognition that’s there’s something greater than yourself out there and of course, there’s sportsmanship and civility.
Here are just a few of today’s examples.
First off, Bay Athletic Director Jason Kasmarick, Blue Dukes coach Jay Wojcinski and a small army of volunteers made sure the sectional ran smooth as silk. The weather (75 degrees and sunny) cooperated as well, as people in their lawnchairs gathered under the abundant, green trees and created a picture postcard/Norman Rockwell-perfect setting for the event.
The concession stand’s special of an Italian sausage with onions and peppers was also a big hit.
The level of play only added to the gentile and reassuring atmosphere.
There was was West freshman pitcher Gavin Hinckley who toed the mound against a battle-tested Falls team that had overcome multiple injuries and huge graduation losses to be a just a step away from yet another chance at a state title.
He was pitching in the place of the Spartans’ NCAA D1 recruit ace Nathan Burns, who could not go because of injury. Hinckley stepped up and earned the win, going 4-2/3 strong innings before Falls’ senior centerfielder Ryan Piontek chased him with a two-run double that pulled Falls to within 4-2.
Relievers steadied the ship for West, which had been favored to beat Falls in the sectional final last season but had lost in stunning fashion.
Many of those same Spartan players were back and remembered. They had the freshman’s back as they rallied, won and lifted a huge weight off their shoulders in earning a trip to Kapco.
Piontek himself provided a nice grace note himself for the Indians as it was fitting he had a big hit this day.
He was one of the few key returnees for Falls from the twin state titles. He hit out of the two hole and was a fundamentally sound player, having laid down three sacrifice bunts in Falls regional final win over Cedarburg last week as well as playing a terrific centerfield.
People may remember him for his joyous reaction after he scored the winning run in the Indians 2016 WIAA sectional semifinal win over Grafton.
Falls also had other moments. The star of the last two titles, University of Illinois pitcher and current Milwaukee Brewers intern Ty Weber, was at Cahill too, along with several of his former teammates. They cheered lustily as senior pitcher Logan Roble threw a strong six-plus innings in shutting out Kewaskum, 4-0, in the semifinal.
It was Roble, who last year defeated New Holstein in the state semifinal on a scorching hot July morning, setting up Weber for his valedictory, the splendid 2-0 shutout of Marquette in the state final.
Roble said this year’s team overcame much to get this far. That included the graduation of Weber and the other seniors from last year and also the discouraging before season loss of all-state shortstop and pitcher Nick Gile to a knee injury.
Gile, who played huge roles in both state title runs, stayed with the team all season in uniform and was an inspiration. He still has a future in baseball, as he will attend Madison Area Technical College (MATC), a well known junior college power.
Gile’s loyalty and determination was part of an ethos at Falls , one that a teammate of Roble’s said went this way:
“We were made for the playoffs”.
“Wholeheartedly,” said Roble if he agreed with that assessment. “It’s a tribute to our success. We lose Ty and the others, but a lot of us have been in this situation before and we believe in ourselves. It’s on us now. We are a team.”
“We wanted to win, of course,” said Falls coach Pat Hansen, “but we were one of the last eight teams playing and with all the adversity we faced, that was something. Sometimes you just have to give it up to the other team (West).”
Coach Pat Hansen and the two-time state champ Falls baseball team will look for a 3rd straight state tourney berth at 4:30.
Homestead coach Ernie Millard did. The Highlanders were floundering early in the season and had been drilled by West twice this summer. But the team found a spark behind ace Joe Panella and proven winners like football stars Eric Zoeller and Bradley Woldt.
Panella pitched eight strong innings in the thrilling 2-1 sectional semifinal loss to West. He got help from excellent outfield play from Dylan Moser and Zoeller, both of whom initiated outfield doubleplays.
But the Spartans’ Anthony Schlass stymied Homestead for eight innings himself and smashed the gamewinning triple over Zoeller’s head to decide it. The hit ended Homestead’s 15-game winning streak and Millard’s hope of a possible stealth state title run.
“That was on me,” Millard said of Schlass’s hit. “I probably should have told Eric to back up a few steps. He might have had a chance at the ball then.”
But Millard didn’t miss his chance at the reaffirming ritual he has done at the end of every season. The Highlanders lined up and one by one got a hearty hug and a few congratulatory words from Millard. It was an elegant display.
“This didn’t happen by accident,” Millard added. “We rounded into shape when Joe (Panella) regained some of his form from last year. …But at mid-season I asked Dan (assistant coach Juedes) if we could even get to .500 and I didn’t think we could. Then we rip off 15 in a row.
“I’m just so proud of these kids. We had a chance.”
The joyous display of West’s post-finals’ celebration was both proud and humble.
As Albrecht noted, the Spartans handled themselves well. Veteran Fox 6 broadcaster Tim Van Vooren, after he was done interviewing the kids, laughed and said that “Schlass was so good he could do my job himself.”
The Spartans, as they now chase history, will now try to embrace another mantra that all athletes look to adopt but find hard to do at times, given sports often cold realities. It is appropriate in both victory and defeat.
Hansen said it best after Falls’ loss.
“This is fine,” he said. “We have zero regrets.”