"How the heck are we going to state?"
Homestead baseball coach Ernie Millard had his hands on hips and was wearing a smile on his face as broad as the early evening sunshine at Cahill Park in Whitefish Bay on Monday.
His team was patiently going through the awards' line after stunning North Shore Conference champion Bay, 10-4, in the WIAA sectional final and earning the Highlanders (25-7) a surprising state tournament berth, their ninth overall and the first for the team since 2009.
After all, even though Millard was smiling when he asked the rhetorical question, it was very serious in its intent. Homestead had graduated its top five pitchers, including NOW All-Suburban selection Colten Poellinger and only three full-time starters returned from a good team of a year ago.
He came up with a simple but broad-based answer: This team really, really likes each other.
"I've been 22 years at this," he said, "and we've had some tremendous groups come through, but this is as good a group as we've had in terms of really getting along and really liking each other.
"They have so much respect for each other. They would never think of throwing somebody under the bus, and that gives them such tremendous license. There's no worrying about individual mistakes, there's just total acceptance."
Because of that acceptance and tenacity, the Highlanders will advance to the WIAA State Tournament on Friday that is located right around the corner for them at Kapco Park on the Concordia campus.
The togetherness that got them there showed up in the sectional final and in the remarkable 10-8 come-from-behind win over Menomonee Falls in the sectional semifinal earlier in the day.
Example number one.
Sophomore pitcher Eric Skaar. He had been tagged hard for four two-out runs by Falls in the first inning of the semifinal and when the second inning began poorly, Millard pulled him.
But Millard had to go through four different pitchers in the Falls game, leaving his pitching in a bit of disarray. Meanwhile, the pitching deep Bay team (27-6) had its pitching situation in perfect order after Nick Lackney threw six strong innings in a 5-2 semifinal win over West Bend West.
So, of course Millard made a counter-intuitive decision when it came to his starting pitcher for the final.
"This group never, ever stops believing in itself," said Millard. "He (Skaar) was a pitcher who was really struggling, trying to find himself and figure things out. I asked him 'What do you think (about starting the title game)?'
"There aren't many second chances in the same day for a pitcher in baseball, but he went out and redeemed himself."
To the tune of four solid, one-run innings during which all he gave up was an RBI single to the Blue Dukes' Andrew James in the first.
"Millard tells us that Eric is going to start the second game and that he can do it," said third baseman Mitch Sutton, "and then he went out and tossed a gem."
Example number two.
Another young pitcher, Garrett Erfourth came in and relieved Skaar in the fifth. He inherited a 5-1 lead. He tossed two shutout innings before struggling a bit in the seventh, but by that time, the Highlanders had built a 10-1 lead and so could afford it.
Erfourth struck out three in his night's work and started a rally-killing 1-6-3 doubleplay in the sixth.
"He had not thrown a varsity game for about a month and he did a fantastic job," saidf Millard.
In ther third inning, a fly ball by Bay starting and losing pitcher Joe Kaszubowski fell in-between two Homestead outfielders. The ball should have been caught easily.
A play later, an incensed Millard called time and brought the whole team to the mound.
Senior Bryce Juedes relates the cleaned up version of Millard's direct monologue.
"He said we've been great as an outfield all season, but that we really had to get our heads on straight," Juedes said. "After that, we got things figured out."
Bay would get another runner on in the frame, but Skaar would get three groundball outs to end the threat.
Sutton would then jerk the Homestead offense to life. Homestead did not have a hit until that point, but then Sutton lashed a Kaszubowski fastball on a quick linedrive over the left-centerfield fence for a home run to tie the score in the fourth.
"I gave a little fist-pump when I knew it was going out," laughed Sutton.
Four batters later, Jared Stieve would rip an RBI single to score Trevor Cho and the Highlanders had a lead they would not relinquish.
The game would soon turn into a polar opposite of the 13-1 June 12 thrashing Bay visited upon Homestead with Kaszubowski on the hill.
In the fifth, a two-out Homestead rally plated three runs as Cho, one of the few returning veterans, hit an RBI double and that was followed by a two-run double from Juedes, another of the veterans.
"The bottom line to this game," said Blue Duke coach Jay Wojcinski, "was when Homestead had an opportunity to score they got the big hits they needed. They got guys who clutched up.
"We would get guys on, but we could never get a hit."
Meanwhile, Homestead would continue to do so, as a five-run seventh clinched things. Eric Wade crashed a boimb of a three-run double as the Highlanders put the final touches on this surprising victory.
Bay would get three runs off of Erfourth in the seventh, two on a James double, but Stieve, whose killer grand slam home run to left put the Highlanders ahead for good against Falls, got a ground out to first to end the game.
"We only had those couple of returning starters," said Sutton, "but Jared (Stieve) developed into a really good pitcher, better than we thought. Other people picked it up too."
Juedes, whose Dad Dan serves as an assistant coach for Millard just as he did in the fall for Dave Keel, when Juedes was a top-notch linebacker for the Highlander football team, agreed that this baseball squad has a lot of heart.
"This team came in and it was about 50/50 between juniors and seniors,"
he said, "but we came together. We knew people in the conference and in the community didn't expect much from us.
"Most of them said we'd be lucky to be .500 for the season. But we had a young pitching staff that got better and better and the way we kept coming back really spoke to our team character. We never got complacent. We just wanted to get better and better."
"We always knew we could come back," said Stieve. "We've hit a lot of good pitching this year and we gain a lot of confidence when we start scoring runs."
Wojcinski, whose team won its first North Shore Conference title this season, was understandably disappointed.
"Very much so," he said, "but we look at the big picture this game, Homestead deserved to win. They did all the things they needed to do to get it done."
Which leaves Millard and the Highlanders with a very short, well-deserved trip to Kapco Park on Friday for a state semifinal.
"Even in games we lost this year, we just kept hitting and hitting and hitting," he said. "Today was no exception."
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