Homestead's Poellinger's mental toughness, location made him difficult to face this summer
Highlanders star got noticed
It takes a great Homestead pitcher to know another great Homestead pitcher.
And former Highlanders professional baseball player and author of a no-hitter in the WIAA state championship game of 1974 Randy Rennicke definitely likes what he sees in WBCA All-State and NOW All-Suburban pitcher Colten Poellinger.
The interesting thing about his observations is that what impressed him had nothing to do with anything Poellinger did in a game.
"I'm embarrassed to say that my life is just so very busy right now that I wasn't able to get to a game he was pitching this season," Rennicke said, "but I was by the park on a Saturday night and I see this lefthander throwing a bullpen session and it was him (Poellinger) and I looked closely and I asked myself, 'What is he doing?'
"And all he was doing was working on location, just on his breaking balls. And he kept on working on it. That was very interesting."
Because, as his veteran coach Ernie Millard said, Poellinger was a man made for the real estate market.
"All he does is work on location, location, location," he said.
And because of that, Poellinger had what Millard called the "single-greatest season he's ever seen by a Homestead pitcher."
The numbers tell a lot of the story, 8-0 record, 73 strikeouts against just nine walks, a miserly 0.27 ERA, and an astonishing scoreless streak of 41 innings that was only broken up by an error that he himself committed.
But it was more of those intangibles, the work ethic, the ability to recognize a problem, that really separated Poellinger this season.
"When pressed, he could really change gears," Millard said.
Poellinger only models himself after the best. Recent NOW All-Suburban Players of the year like Kevin James of Whitefish Bay (Major League draft pick in 2009) and Brian Keller of Germantown (state player of the year 2012) as well as Conor Fisk of Grafton.
He's not as big or as strong as any of those three (5-11, 160) but he works just as hard as they do. He didn't start pitching seriously until his junior year, but he worked hard on developing three pitches he could throw for strikes (fastball, curve and change-up). He got comfortable with the curve ball his junior year and he said his confidence just jumped up at that point.
"It really became an out pitch for me then," he said. Because he got so adept at both the curve and the change, it made his fastball (80-81 miles an hour) look and feel that much faster.
"I try to make sure no one's ready for what I'm throwing," he said. "I work very hard on keeping my motion all the same."
And Rennicke noticed that, too.
"I saw him pitch a little bit last year," Rennicke said. "He has an interesting arm slot, a very deceptive delivery."
Poellinger moved to the Mequon area with his mom before he started kindergarten. He tried other sports, but quickly realized that baseball was going to be his meal ticket. He earned spots on the Wisconsin Rockhounds and the BOSS Academy traveling teams when he was in his early teens and made the varsity at Homestead as a sophomore.
Had time to develop
An adept outfielder (he played in center when not pitching), he quickly realized he would have to rely on his work ethic to make an impression. Initially, when he was on varsity, the focus was on the outfield before he made himself too good on the mound not to get noticed.
"They really didn't need me until my junior year," he said. "Then I was able to develop some consistency and that really helped."
His ground zero for his success this year was the tough 1-0 WIAA regional loss to Arrowhead last season.
"I worked hard so I wouldn't be on the side of those kind of games too often again," he said. "Still, that game gave me a lot of confidence. I spent a lot of the off-season throwing a lot of bullpens and taking a lot of batting practice. A volunteer coach from Menomonee Falls, Mark Collins, was absolutely invaluable helping me with both the mental physical side of things."
"As I've gotten older, I've come to realize the mental part is probably more important than the physical part."
And that helped carry him through as the Highlanders completed a 20-8 North Shore runner-up season. He gave up two runs in a win over Plymouth in the seventh inning of the first game of the season for him on the hill and then it was literally "shutout city" for him the rest of the way.
He threw six consecutive shutouts after that, all in North Shore play before giving up an unearned run in a win over Nicolet. He hit 11 strikeouts four times and the only time he had more than two walks in a game was in a 2-0 win over Bay (four free passes in that one).
"As I was going through that, I was gaining a lot of confidence," he said. "Other teams started to think about having to go against me. 'Oh boy, we have to face him!' That was a nice feeling to have, but I tried not to act cocky. I just wanted to have a presence out there."
And of those tough situations, like the fourth and fifth innings of a 4-0 win over Grafton, where over the course of two frames, he stranded a total of five runners by striking out the final two batters in each inning, he could only smile.
"It just comes down to you in those positions," he said. "You just have to throw the pitches. You can't help but have a rush of adrenaline in those situations. Your fastball seems a little quicker, your breaking ball seems to break a little harder.
He will now head to Hendrix (Arkansas), a Division III school which is known as a baseball magnet. He learned about the school at a recent showcase in Chicago.
Rennicke thinks Poellinger will do just fine.
"He's a tough competitior," he said. "That Saturday, with his parents right there, helping out. I just thought. 'That's outstanding.' He's just very impressive. Location, delivery, he's got great stuff."
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