This was a year both like and unlike many others of the recent past for the hugely successful Oak Creek baseball program.
There was talent and there was some leadership, but there were moments that left coach Scott Holler and his staff scratching their heads in disbelief and others that left them utterly amazed.
By the end of the campaign, this group could hold its head up with all the other great Knight teams of the past decade as the competitive 24-10 Knights won a share of the Greater Metro Conference regular season title and made their seventh WIAA state tournament appearance, falling in the semifinals to eventual runner-up Homestead.
The turning point in Holler's mind came right after a two-game, one-day tourney at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where Oak Creek lost to a bad Nicolet and barely survived a mediocre Kettle Moraine squad. The team had a young pitching staff (five of seven were sophomores) that lost one of its guns when Matt Hamilton developed elbow tendonitis (he would continue to play the outfield), and there were question marks all over the place.
"We were scratching heads, and we (as a staff) were talking about the mental side of the game," Holler said. "The real drawback of the summer is that you're playing all the time so you wind up trying to cram all the fundamentals into such a short time frame (in preseason practice). We try to get moments here or there to work on the suicide squeeze (a tactic used to great effect in the sectional final win over Greendale) while spring teams can do that almost everyday.
"And we knew we were in trouble (in Greater Metro Conference play). Brookfield Central had a two-game lead, so we decided to just go out and play as well as we could. We never thought that Central would lose the lead with the pitching staff they had."
But the eventual WIAA state champion Lancers did stumble, losing five of six games after starting out 21-1, while the Knights came up with big wins over West Allis Central and South Milwaukee.
The GMC race came down to a July 3 night at Central where senior pitcher Jesse Sustachek came up with the game of his life, no-hitting the Lancers and coming within a walk of a perfect game in a 3-0 victory that pulled the Knights into a tie for the regular season league title with Marquette.
Holler has long called Sustachek "one of the best game pitchers we've ever had" and likened the effort to that of a then freshman Tony Butler who threw five innings of no-hit ball at perhaps the best Homestead team of all-time in a 3-2 WIAA state championship game victory in 2003.
The subsequent week, including the GMC tourney, was not easy or kind on the Knights; but again, they regrouped in time for the WIAA tourney where, as noted before, Holler rolled the dice, gave Sustachek maximum rest and relied on other, younger pitchers to get the Knights to the sectional final.
Which they did.
Sustachek held off the hard-hitting, uber-talented Panthers just long enough to secure a 6-4 victory and another state tournament berth. Along with the sacrifice bunts, catcher and terrific leader Steve Stillwell, who didn't hit very often this season but hit a huge home run in that game.
The loss at state was disappointing but not deflating.
Holler was grateful to his assistants and his team as they adjusted to his new reality of becoming Oak Creek's athletic director, which often meant that he was late to practice because of meetings. He also had shoulder surgery over the winter and really couldn't throw batting practice.
"Everyone was very accommodating," he said.
Junior shortstop Doran Turchin led the way, earning WBCA first-team All-State honors after hitting .444 and coming within four of the all-time season record for RBI with 46.
The senior Sustachek would finish with with 7-3 record and a 2.13 ERA while fellow seniors Mitch Hart (first base) and Matt Hargreaves (third base) would hit .387 and .354, respectively, and would provide huge doses of leadership — Hart with his maturity and Hargreaves with his toughness (he received a leg injury in a game against Marquette that would require seven stitches but continued to play anyway).
Other seniors included role players Austin Flick (.393 BA in limited play), Jake Brauner and Danny Horner. Hart, Hargreaves and Sustachek were the co-captains. The junior varsity was 20-6 and the freshmen were 23-2.
"(Assistant coach) Warren Smith and I talked about a lot of things and we each gave different speeches to the kids about all the little things we needed to continue to do well," Holler said. "We taught them as much as we could. It wasn't always pretty."
The most important thing about this season was that the team enjoyed itself, Holler added.
"Brookfield Central and Marquette were more talented, but we had a lot of fun together," he said. "They got along and laughed a lot. We needed a group like this."
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