After his team's gritty 7-5 WIAA state semifinal victory over Oak Creek Friday afternoon at Kapco Park, Homestead baseball coach Ernie Millard pulled out his cell phone and pointed to a text message he received from senior pitcher Ben Garstecki at 10:22 p.m. the night before.
It read as follows:
"Hey coach, I want you to know that 100 percent, whatever you need me to do (at state) I'm ready for it."
Millard considered it a good omen and a bit of a prophecy, because after Highlander starter Jared Stieve gave up a three-run homer to the Knights' Matt Hargreaves in the third, cutting what had been a safe 6-1 lead down to a nail-biting 6-4, and then put two more runners on base, someone was needed to right the Highlanders' ship.
In walked Garstecki, who promptly gave up an RBI single to Knight outfielder Matt Hamilton, but who then proceeded to toss four-and-two-thirds scoreless innings to make sure the Homestead lead would stand up.
The effort put a big smile on Millard's face.
"I'm just so happy for these kids I don't know what to do with myself," he said.
With tthe win, Homestead (26-7) advanced to the WIAA state championship game back at Kapco Park at Concordia in their own backyard at 6:35 p.m. tonight against Brookfield Central (28-6), a 2-1 winner over Plymouth in the second semifinal.
It's the first title game appearance for the Highlanders since Oak Creek stymied one of Homestead's best teams ever in a 3-2 finals loss in 2003. Homestead last won a title in Millard's second season of 1994.
He thanked Garstecki and the Homestead defense for making that happen.
Garstecki induced one double-play to finally clean up the third inning mess, and then after the Knights (24-10) loaded the bases in the fourth, he got the ever dangerous Doran Turchin to line out to center and then got a comebacker to end the frame.
Those last two outs were part of eight consecutive outs Garstecki induced. He also started a critical 1-6-3 doubleplay in the seventh after Hargreaves began the inning with a single, his third hit of the game.
Catcher Luke Lebesch then made a nice running catch of a foul pop to send the Highlanders to the championship tilt.
"I had a lot of confidence knowing I had a good defense behind me," said Garstecki. "I just tried to do what I always do. Keep the ball down and trust my defense. ...Everytime I needed them, they were there."
"I just needed someone who could go out there and throw strikes," said Millard.
It was because Oak Creek ace Jesse Sustachek could not throw strikes that the Highlanders were able to put together a 5-0 lead in the first. Sustachek, working on short rest, walked the first two Highlanders he saw in the first.
After a sacrifice by Mitch Sutton, Trevor Cho hit a hard chopper that was mishandled by the Knight second baseman and scored the first run of the game.
That was followed by a bullet of a single by red-hot Homestead outfielder Bryce Juedes which plated another score. First baseman Mike Schulz then hit a bomb of a triple to dead-center to score two more and starting pitcher Jared Stieve brought home the last run of the inning on a sacrifice fly.
"That start was huge," said Millard.
Stieve then gave up a mammoth home run to Mitch Hart to start the Oak Creek second. Millard was irritated that it was not the pitch that had been called.
Still, the Highlanders got the run back on a sacrifice fly by Cho in the bottiom of the second and Homestead looked comfortable and cruising at 6-1.
But Stieve could not get out of the third, hitting and walking a batter before giving up the foul-pole hugging three-run shot to left to Hargreaves. Millard actually thought the ball was hooking foul and that the caporicious winds near Lake Michigan curled back around and brought the ball back in fair.
"He really just could not keep the ball down," said Millard of Stieve. "...We were in all kinds of trouble."
Garstecki remained calm as he came in with two men on. He gave up the single to Hamilton and then watched as Cho started a 6-4-3 doubleplay to finally end the inning with the score a now tenuous 6-5.
Garstecki needed to be as effective as he did after that point, because Sustachek, after his rocky start, settled down and threw three straight scoreless innings, including getting a clutch strikeout to end a two-man on Highlander threat in the fourth.
But the Highlanders picked up a critical insurance run in the sixth as Ian Koch and Sutton both notched two-out singles. After a fielder's choice, Juedes came up big again with a bullet of a RBI single to center.
"After things got tight, we just tried to stay level-headed," said Juedes, who had been intentionally walked in a similar dangerous situation earlier in the game. "That was a big RBI. I think he (Sustachek) made a mistake and caught too much of the plate. I got good wood on it and it all worked out."
Garstecki said the additional run was huger.
"That was so important," he said, "...because that allowed me to just concentrate on the batter all the time (in the seventh)."
In that inning, Garstecki then made a nifty pick of Turchin's hard one-hopper to start that pivotal twin-killing. Millard said that the Highlanders worked on that with their pitchers in the pratice they had at Kapco yesterday.
Garstecki wound up scattering five hits with one walk and one strikeout while Sustachek allowed 12 hits with three walks and five strikeouts. Hargreaves had a monster game for the Knights with three hits and three RBI while Hart had two hits and scored two runs.
Sutton had three hits for Homestead while both Juedes and Schulz had two hits and knocked in two runs apiece and Koch also had two hits and scored two runs while Eric Wade scored two runs himself.
Now the Highlanders will essentially be the home team in the WIAA state championship game. A thought that pleases everyone concerned.
"It was so nice seeing so many fans out there cheering for us," Garstecki said. "We really couldn't ask for anything more."
"It's just huge," added Juedes. "Everyone was chanting 'Let's go Homestead!' There's just nothing like winning a game like that in front of so many of your home fans."
"This should be a great crowd," said Millard, "because this trip to state is as special for us as anyone else. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these kids and we're going to celebrate it as if we were going to Stevens Point (where the tournament was before 2012)."
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