"Baseball is a funny game," said Oak Creek baseball coach Scott Holler moments after first baseman Riley Shelton's ripping single up the middle completed a roaring comeback from a 4-0 deficit and earned them the unlikeliest of WIAA state championships against Germantown Friday night at Kapco Park in Mequon.
"It can be so cruel and yet be so sweet."
And Holler and company had endured much of both in the last month, as they claimed their summer baseball record fourth state crown with the thrilling 5-4 decision.
After all, it wasn't supposed to be this rebuilt Oak Creek unit that was to taste this sweetest prize of all. This team with just two-and-a-half starters coming back (if you really stretch it) from the 2011 Greater Metro Conference regular season champions.
Further, they really weren't supposed to do it because a month ago top pitcher Austin Barbee dislocated his shoulder and tore a tendon in a head-first slide during a bad loss to archrival Franklin. He was supposed to be lost for the season.
But Barbee was among the Knights (28-7 overall) who believed in himself and his teammates, even after the team lost out to Menomonee Falls for the GMC regular season crown and fell to Muskego in the league tournament finale.
"There was no doubt that I would be back," said Barbee, who had three hits on the day in his designated hitter role (sliding feet-first whenever he had to). "It's a minor dislocation. I knew I couldn't come back and pitch, but I knew I could contribute."
"Given all that, this means a lot."
Barbee will have surgery to repair the tendon on Tuesday and when he recovers he is destined to pitch for UW-Parkside.
Shelton was another who savored the taste. He had three hits in the 10-0 semifinal win over Sheboygan Falls earlier in the day and came up with two out in the bottom of the seventh after Hayden Krimmer had singled and Matt Bautch had wrangled a walk off game Warhawk pitcher Ryan Anderson.
But Shelton was not overwhelmed by the moment. He recalled something said by one of the Knight assistants when things were looking their grimmest this night, down 4-0 heading into the bottom of the sixth.
This person had been on the last of Oak Creek's stunning trio of state championships from 2003-2005 so he knew what pressure was.
"He said, 'We were down a lot going into the fifth inning in that game and we never doubted ourselves. We didn't doubt and we knew we were going to win,'" said Shelton. "I tried not to doubt either. I was looking for a fastball, I got it and I hit it as hard as I could."
"This is such an amazing moment. I'm almost speechless I'm so excited. This really means a lot to us. It means we don't have to look back to 2005 anymore and maybe we can even win some more (titles in the near future)."
But even with all this meaning, all this tenacity and heart, even veteran coach Scott Holler, who led that 2005 crew to that last title, had his doubts.
"The wheels could have really come off then (at that Franklin game where Barbee got hurt)," he said, "but this just shows the heart of this team. What competitors they are. Not many people throught we'd be here (at state) and sometimes I thought that too."
"But these kids showed up. They showed up time and again."
He pointed to Krimmer, who pitched the first five innings of the final, but did not get the decision. He struggled with his control in the second inning, walking in two Warhawk runs as Germantown (25-10) took the early advantage.
"I was on that top step (ready to pull him)," said Holler, "but he kept saying 'Just one more batter coach. Just one more batter.' For him to battle back like that and keep us in the game was impressive."
And Krimmer was the happiest guy in the world to score the winning run.
"We knew we just had to get a rally started," he said. "Just get something going. And we did (in the sixth) and that's when the energy really picked up."
Because though the winning run came across in the seventh, the road to this title was paved in the sixth. Anderson had been brilliant for the Warhawks, getting the Knights to pound the ball into Kapco's synthetic turf time and again (12 groundball outs through five innings) with his defense making the play again and again.
Until that sixth when the Knights' Tanner Johnson (infield single) and Krimmer (error) both hit nubbers that went under the gloves of Warhawk infielders. A total of three errors would be committed that inning by the normally air-tight Germantown defense.
A wild pitch brought in one run, eventual winning pitcher Brad Schulte's fielder's choice brought in another and still another came in on a throwing error on Schulte's groundball.
And when Dakota Slone ripped a single to right to score courtesy runner Kahler Cox, the game was tied at 4-4 and Kapco was hopping with the sweet flavor of a thrilling finish.
"Ryan was pitching so well like he had all year and the defense had been so solid through five innings, it was just something," said Warhawk coach Jeff Wolf. "Those were two tough plays to start the inning. Two balls hit into gray areas (of the infield)."
"It just shows that Oak Creek is a very good team and you can't keep giving them extra outs."
"I don't think we were nervous. We knew we belonged there. It just all happened in one inning. We were confident."
So were the Knights.
"We always have confidence," said Schulte, who had the rare distinction of being the winning pitcher in both games. "There wasn't one moment where we were down on ourselves. We just knew that we had to find a way to stay alive, find a way to catch some breaks and we did."
"All it took was one (break) to get it started. We just never gave up."
Schulte did his bit. He gave up an RBI single to Germantown's Louis Tuszynski in the sixth, but after his team rallied in the bottom of the frame, he put down the Warhawks in order in the seventh to set up his team's game-winning rally.
For Germantown, which was looking for its first title, it was a wrenching defeat.
"To lose maybe 10-0 is one thing, but to lose like this, that's going to hurt awhile," said Wolf.
But it'll go down as one of the sweetest moments in the recordbooks at Oak Creek.
"We talk about tradition (and the three titles)," said Holler, "and the kids want to be a part of that. We told them that they can make their own history. That they can step out of the shadows and be the team that sets that record, win that fourth title."
"They wanted that. They really wanted that."
"I think we may have been the most overlooked team (in state summer baseball) this year," he laughed.
Overlooked no more, these Knights are now the sweetest of state champions.
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