Oak Creek - NOW All-Suburban selections Tanner Johnson and Riley Shelton came up through the ranks to lead the 2012 state champion Oak Creek baseball team.
But there was nothing easy or effortless about how they did it.
Johnson earned Greater Metro Conference Player of the Year and Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association first-team all-state honors this season after a 2011 campaign in which he started only part-time and didn't have a single extra-base hit.
"Oh God, that was something," said Johnson, the team's third baseman. "After that, I went down to the Hitter's Baseball Training Academy (in Racine) three or four times a week for an hour a day just trying to get better. I didn't want to be known as just a singles hitter.
"And I started eating healthier and working out. I gained 20 pounds of muscle that way. By the time I got into the spring league, I was ready to go. I really surprised myself, I really started hitting the snot out of the ball then."
Hard work paid off
Coach Scott Holler noticed the transformation.
"By the end of this year he was driving the ball to all fields," Holler said. "We always knew the arm strength and the defense were there, but he really made a commitment to working out and improving himself. He just took off."
A walk-off home run against Wauwatosa East in a critical early-season league game earned him the three-spot in the order.
But that didn't mean life was easy for him this summer. There was the expected success of the program, despite the team having to do a lot of rebuilding. He was also expected to help other newcomers get better and was expected to be a leader, too.
Holler delivered that message, along with a badly needed boost of confidence at a late-season practice, after the conference meetings.
"He told me 'I get on you because you could be better than you ever thought you could be and because you've been named Conference Player of the Year,' " said Johnson. "That was just great. It really helped."
Johnson will be heading to Iowa Lakes Community College, a school about two hours west of La Crosse, where he hopes to keep improving and eventually latch onto a four-year school.
Shelton's shining moment
Meanwhile, Shelton, the Knights' steady-as-a-rock first baseman, had even less experience than Johnson going into this summer. He had waited his turn, worked hard and earned his position this season as a first-year senior starter. Still, recognition didn't come until the last three weeks of the campaign when, as Holler said, Shelton became "almost impossible to get out."
That culminated in Shelton living every kids' dream, as he ripped the game-winning single through the box in the bottom of the seventh in the state championship game against Germantown on July 20 at Kapco Park in Mequon.
That was just the hyper-smart Shelton (an honor society member, who ranked in the top five percent of his class and started a science club at the school this past year) working the problem.
He, like almost all of his teammates, started playing baseball through the Oak Creek Little League program, competing hard to get noticed among a number of talented kids trying to reach the highest level youth teams.
"You had to learn to wait," he said.
That included high school, when he finally got noticed this year. He tried out for both first base and outfield, eventually gaining the job in the infield.
"I worked so hard to get this far," Shelton said.
He was steady throughout the season until a late-summer explosion, which included five hits in the two state tournament games combined on July 20, lifting his batting average and status as a big-time player.
"We had to work hard to get him some honors, because he just got so tremendously hot down the stretch," Holler said.
That hit is probably the swan song for Shelton in baseball, as he is heading to the University of Wisconsin. A lover of science and math classes, he will likely major in engineering. He will clearly remember his last days as a player.
"This year was so great," he said. "We didn't win the conference (regular season) title or the tournament title, but we knew there was still one thing we could get. And that was state."
Johnson and Shelton latest OC success stories
Both make All-Suburban Team for state champs
JOHNSON'S STATS: 52 hits in 117 at-bats (.444 batting average), eight doubles, one triple, one home run, 34 runs, 31 RBIs, 15 walks, 12 stolen bases, .504 on-base percentage, .556 slugging, 1.060 OPS.
SHELTON'S STATS: 42 hits in 98 at bats (.429 BA), six doubles, four triples, four home runs, 18 runs, 29 RBIs, six walks, .463 on-base, .694 slugging, 1.157 OPS.
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