Oak Creek — Oak Creek baseball coach Scott Holler is big on his program's history and tradition.
He's proud of the school's three consecutive state titles from 2003-05 and loves to run down the star-studded laundry list of talented players who have made their way through the system, players such as Major League Baseball draftees Tony Harper and Tony Butler and 2009 NOW All-Suburban co-player of the year J.T. Schneider.
This summer, senior utility player Tyler Zemla added his name to that impressive list.
After a breakout season that saw Zemla excel at the plate and on the mound, the first-team all-state selection and runner-up in the Greater Metro Conference player of the year balloting joined that trio as the only Knights to win the NOW player of the year award.
'Doing things the right way'
"He just loves baseball," Holler said. "He's the type of kid you'll remember for always doing things the right way. If you taught him something, he'd try it."
Unlike Harper and Butler and to a lesser extent Schneider, Zemla was not an instant success on the Oak Creek varsity.
As a junior in his second year on the varsity, he established himself as the No. 2 pitcher in the rotation and played first base at times, accumulating about 70 at-bats and hitting around .300.
He was expected to be the Knights' ace this summer, which he clearly was. The 6-foot, 2-inch, 215-pound Winona St. recruit won his first eight starts of the season and finished 8-2 with one save and 73 strikeouts in 74 innings. He posted a 1.23 ERA, pitched five complete games (two shutouts) and held opponents to a .222 batting average.
But it was at the plate where Zemla provided an even bigger, unexpected boost. As the team's cleanup hitter, Zemla batted .417 with 50 hits in 120 at-bats, including 14 doubles, two triples and five home runs. He drove in 41 runs, scored 27 and had an on-base percentage of .493.
Not bad for a guy who concentrated largely on pitching during his offseason league with the Racine Hitters while hitting was an afterthought.
"We didn't know how productive he'd be," Holler said. "I didn't think he'd put up the numbers he put up."
So, where did the offensive explosion come from?
"Earlier in his career, he liked to see a lot of pitches," Holler explained. "This year we told him he had to be more aggressive. You have to get those fastballs and turn on them. … The first game of the year, he pulled one down the line and hit it out. It was just a matter of him believing in himself to get it done. The confidence wasn't always there for him, but once he got on a roll, it propelled him to the offensive season he had."
Zemla, an all-state academic selection with a GPA above 4.0, credited his teammates for his offensive improvement, both past and present.
"Teammates getting on base for me and making pitchers pitch to me," he said. "I saw a lot of good pitches."
And as for following in Schneider's footsteps, the 2009 senior class was "a good group to follow," Zemla said. "Sitting behind them for two years helped me learn the game before I took charge of the team this year, seeing what they do and how things work on the varsity level."
Ace of the conference
On the mound, the senior tri-captain was at times untouchable. He led the GMC with a 0.84 ERA and with 57 strikeouts in 58 innings to earn first-team all-league honors. Arguably his most impressive game was a nine-inning, three-hit shutout that he won, 1-0, when he belted a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning against Brookfield East on June 14. Zemla called it the greatest moment of his career thus far.
"Coming into the game I knew they hit the ball well," Zemla recalled. "I wanted to slow them down and maybe keep them to two runs. … It was the seventh inning and I had only thrown 70-some pitches. I pitched a scoreless ninth, and led off the bottom of the ninth. It was a first-pitch fastball.
"You always (dream about) bottom of the ninth and coming up with a big hit. I got to experience it. And pitching the nine innings was icing on the cake."
Leading Oak Creek's charge
Among his victories were wins against the likes of Muskego, Menomonee Falls and Brookfield Central and his save came against defending state runner-up Marquette.
"We have an expression that when the playoffs roll around, you never leave your horse in the barn," Holler said. "Early in the year it caught on that Tyler was our horse. He knew in order for the team to be successful, he had to take the ball and pitch in all the big games."
Holler said a key to Zemla's success was his ability to keep the ball low in the strike zone, work ahead of hitters and complement a fastball clocked in the low 80s with above average off-speed pitches. He said it was a repertoire that had Zemla headed for success the first time he stepped on the field for an Oak Creek practice.
"I thought he could (be a state-caliber player) on the mound, I really did," Holler said. "With his size and the way he pitched back then, he had a lot of success as a freshman on the jayvee (team). If a kid can pound strikes and keep the ball down, you always think he'll be special.
"What I did not know is that he'd be this good offensively."
This year marks the third time teammates have won the NOW Newspapers player of the year award in consecutive seasons:
2009-10: Oak Creek's J.T. Schneider* and Tyler Zemla
2007-08: Menomonee Falls' Doug Dekoning and Alex Erdmann*
1991-93: Franklin's Jason Herrick, Steve Grzeszkiewicz and Matt Tyger
* co-player of the year
Tyler Zemla became the fourth Knights player in school history to earn the NOW All-Suburban player of the year award:
2010: Tyler Zemla, senior, utility player
2009: J.T. Schneider, senior, outfielder
2005: Tony Butler, junior, pitcher
2003: Tony Harper, senior, pitcher
Vs. West Allis
NOW player of the year Tyler Zemla had some of his best outings against West Allis Central and Hale. The following are highlights from his games with those schools this summer:
JUNE 10: vs. Central - in an 8-0 Oak Creek win, Zemla struck out nine and allowed only three hits in five innings to improve to 2-0.
JUNE 11: vs. Central - Zemla belted an RBI double in a four-run sixth inning as they pulled away for an 8-3 victory.
JULY 5: vs. Hale - the senior ace was dominant again as he struck out 10 batters and scattered four hits to improve to 8-0. He also went 3-for-4 with four RBIs in an 8-0 victory.
JULY 6: vs. Hale - Zemla belted a home run and drove in a pair as Oak Creek won, 9-7.
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