To Homestead baseball coach Ernie Millard, Franklin's Jim Hughes is the "silver-haired fox", a talented, genial and driven individual who has had the Sabers' among the state's elite for many years now.
His 700-plus wins are testament to his success, his longeviety and maybe to a sturdy set of combs as Hughes appears still to have every hair on his head that he was born with.
He has won numerous conference titles, sent countless players onto college, earned seven trips to the state tournament and in this, the 20th anniversary of the NOW Newspapers All-Suburban team, his Sabers still have the most all-time selections (30, three better than Nicolet).
But one thing he doesn't have is a state title. The closest he got was the rain-drenched 2000 event, where his squad had to play two heartbreaking qualifying games earlier in the day, only to lose to the Brookfield Central juggernaut in the final that same night at the end of a very long but very compressed tournament. Only Central got its first round game in on the first day in that soggy state event.
However, if Hughes is feeling any pressure heading into his Wednesday quarterfinal at Bukolt Park in Stevens Point against Homestead, he's not showing it. Veteran NOW reporter Dave Cotey, who won a state title in 1996 as a player with South Milwaukee with Hughes long-time friend John Galewski at the helm, said Hughes is loose and relaxed, as the young Sabers (24-13) seem to be playing under the watch of a diligent and hard-working guardian angel.
They won all three of their qualifying tournament games by one run, including a 5-4 decision over Greater Metro Conference South Division champ and rival Oak Creek in the sectional final.
Franklin has eight sophomores on the roster and up to six start at anyone time. Outfielders Jay Direnzo (.400 BA, 44 hits and 35 RBI) and Lance Baretz (.407, 41 runs and 23 stolen bases), lead that group of 10th graders and the Sabers. Junior Brandon Wiedenfeld (6-2, 2.47 ERA) tops the pitching staff.
Even Millard, who Highlanders (21-15) wrote their own "Cinderella" story in upsetting favorites Nicolet and Whitefish Bay to advance, is happy as a clam to have both Hughes and fellow member of the 700-win fraternity Tim O'Driscoll of Arrowhead (31-5) at the annual state party.
"Those are two pretty good resumes', don't you think?" Millard said. "The two winningest coaches in summer baseball."
But like I said earlier, Homestead has its own good backstory, having lost 10 of 11 at one point during a rough closing stretch before rallying behind six seniors, including three (Casey Barnes, Brady Bingham and Matt Lamers) who were on the 2007 Homestead state tournament team. Pitcher infielders Bingham (.402, 49 hits and 26 RBI) and Barnes (.343, 7-3 record, 1.83 ERA) and infielder Matt Lamers (.364, 36 RBI) said that confidence never waned during the wretched late-season run.
"I think we had a little bit of it (confidence) still lurking around heading into the tournament," chuckled Lamers after the 8-4 win over Bay in the sectional final.
And when asked if the state tournament berth is adequate compensation for the miserable streak, Barnes said: "I'll take it everytime."
The Highlanders are making their eighth trip to state and are trying to win their fourth state title including their second under Millard (1994).
O'Driscoll, the veteran scorekeeper for the Brewers, is taking Arrowhead on its sixth trip to state. He won his only title in 1979 and his senior-laden team will enter the tourney with the second-best team batting average (.349). Junior first baseman Brian Crook leads the offense (.489, 42 runs, 34 RBI and 29 stolen bases) while senior catcher Karl Sprung (.421, 35 hits, 33 RBI) has the best sense of the moment. He went five for five in the thrilling 10-inning 4-3 sectional semifinal win over Menomonee Falls, including hitting the first pitch of the 10th inning out of the yard for the game-winning homer.
Seniors Andrew Bauer (6-0, 0.81) and Justin Mortensen (6-0, 1.83) and junior Jordan Paszek (11-1. 1.86) lead the pitching staff.
The Warhawks will take on 2007 champ West Bend West (26-5) in arguably the most compelling quarterfinal. The Spartans (just two seniors) are another young team that finished second to Nicolet in the North Shore. Senior outfielder/pitcher/seige gun Ryan Schilter (.514, 41 runs, 54 hits, 46 RBI, 4-0 record on the mound) is virtually the only holdover left from that title team that is making its 10th state trip.
The most curious qualifier of the tourney is defending champion Marquette as it limps into state with a 19-20 record, but the Hilltoppers took out the best the Woodland Conference had to offer (New Berlin West and Eisenhower) in the sectional to earn their fifth consecutive state berth.The rebuilding squad, with a comparatively small total of just six seniors, is led by senior pitcher/infielder Jack Archie (.385 and 28 RBI) and junior Collin Weyer (7-3, 1.63).
And with West Salem (28-1) as their opponent, the Hilltoppers help create that most curious match-up of the team with the worst record versus the one with the best. The Panthers, making their second straight state appearance, look to earn some upstate pride in the summer event, as they seek to become the first non-Milwaukee area champ since Unity in 1992.
They come in with the best team batting average (.380) and scored in double digits 17 times this summer. Sophomore catcher Tony Schultz comes in with a ridiculous batting average of .632 with 43 hits and 34 RBI, while sophomore Jake McCabe (6-0, 1.74) and senior Dan Schneider (7-0, 1.86) lead the pitching staff.
In the final quarterfinal of the day, GMC South co-champ Muskego (23-9) will take on 2007 state runner-up New Holstein (23-4). The Warriors are making their first trip to state since losing the "Classic in the Clouds" state final to West Bend East in 2002 that was decided by a walk-off home run hit into the fog at Bukolt. The Warriors had a long day in the sectional, playing a combined total of 18 innings against Waukesha West and Whitnall in claiming their fourth overall state berth.
Sophomore pitcher Cole Borek (11-1, 1.97) has had a sensational year on the hill while junior catcher Nick McCormack (.368, 35 hits and 23 RBI) paces the balanced offense.
Their opponent New Holstein, represents the model of consistency in the summer tournament, as the Huskies are making a record 17th appearance. They won their only title in the very first summer event in 1965.
The senior-dominated squad is paced by senior infielder Parker Schrage, who not only hits fiercely (.463, 38 hits and 27 RBI) but also pitches with a commanding presence (10-0, 0.58).
Homestead, Franklin and Muskego will be looking for the first crown for a NOW-area squad since Oak Creek won the last of its three straight championships in 2005.
The semifinals will be at 10:05 a.m. Thursday, July 30 and the championship will be at 3:35 p.m.
JULY 29 QUARTERFINALS
10:05 a.m. quarterfinal session--Homestead (21-15) vs. Franklin (24-13); West Salem (28-1) vs. Marquette (19-20)
3:05 p.m. quarterfinal session--West Bend West (26-5) vs. Arrowhead (31-5); New Holstein (23-4) vs. Muskego (23-9).
PREVIOUS NOW AREA STATE CHAMPIONS (22)
Brown Deer 1966, Brookfield Central 1969, Homestead 1974, Brown Deer 1975, Brookfield Central 1976, Brown Deer 1977, Homestead 1978, Greendale 1980, Sussex Hamilton 1981, Greenfield 1983, Nicolet 1985, Greendale 1987, Whitnall 1991, Homestead 1994, Greendale 1995, South Milwaukee 1996, Wauwatosa East 1997, Nicolet 1998, Brookfield Central 2000, Oak Creek 2003, Oak Creek 2004 and Oak Creek 2005.