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Highlander nine playing with perfect pitch

May 4, 2010

He's better known as a football coach with three state titles to his credit, a past presidency of the WFCA on his resume' and a reputation for winning that is matched in only a few quarters in Wisconsin.

But Homestead's Dave Keel is also a fastpitch softball man, and believe it or not, he's been at it at Homestead much longer (28 years) than he's been on the gridiron.

And with almost as much success.

"My experience with fastpitch softball prior to coaching?" he said rhetorically. "I think I was one for two in one game and I got drilled with a pitch in my first at bat. That was it. I ended with a career batting average of .500 (laughs)."

But his average is much higher in softball coaching, especially after his current 9-0 edition scored a heady three game sweep of southside powerhouses Muskego (2-0), Greenfield (6-3) and 2008 state D2 champ New Berlin Eisenhower (4-1) in the Muskego Invitational last Saturday.

Not that anyone can lay hands on an exact win total for Keel, who hasn't submitted official numbers to various softball association websites, but with a record that includes 12 North Shore Conference titles, 10 WIAA state tournament berths and two state tournament runner-up finishes (1983 and 1988), the numbers are likely to be huge.

"Oh, I know he's got to be ahead of me," said Coach Rich Anderson of Keel's archrival Germantown (6-0, 7-2), who has been on the job for 30 years and who has close to 350 wins himself, "because he's always been good and when we started out, we weren't very good at all."

But Keel insists that any story about him is actually about the players, and though he's had some good ones in the past, this bunch is making noises that it might rank right up there with those previous Homestead powerhouses, especially after their performance on Saturday.

"We're very excited about this," said four-year veteran pitcher Bekah Rennicke, who got the wins over Muskego (with relief help from Behnken) and Greenfield on Saturday. "We wanted to have this great nonconference schedule this year and doing something like this leaves us feeling very good about ourselves."

"Everything is just clicking right now."

That's because these Highlanders are about experience (seven seniors), versatility (second baseman and leader Sarah Block moving to the outfield to save wear and tear on a surgically repaired knee that cost her the entirety of the basketball season) and talent.

"It's so great having Sarah (Block) back on the field because she's such a great influence," said third baseman Britt Schlaeger, who had five hits on the day. "She's a leader in every way."

The versatility comes about on the hill too, as Rennicke had that position virtually to herself the last three years, but the emergence of the junior Behnken has allowed Keel to rotate the two hurlers on a regular basis. Behnken allowed Eisenhower only five hits with five strikeouts.

She and Rennicke each play first base when the other isn't pitching.

"I'm confident in her, she's confident in me, it couldn't work out any better," Rennicke said. "It's a real good relationship and it's really benefitted the team. "Rachel has a little more movement on her ball while I rely more on location."

Behnken even had four hits herself on the day.

The runs the pair gave up on Saturday were the first they've allowed all season as the Highlanders have tossed six shutouts in NSC play heading into this past Tuesday's showdown against Germantown (see MequonNOW.com for details).

The experience of the team also leads to good communication.

"Everyone seems to know where exactly the ball is going to go when another throws it," Rennicke said.

"It all comes up through the experience we have playing with each other as kids and on club teams (the Mequon Rage)," Schaleger said. "We just know each other so well."

And the veteran coach knows that that is an intangible that no amount of teaching can impart.

"Our defense has been so sound all season," Keel said.

Still, even the best of teams can have their sleepy moments, as in the first game at 9 a.m. against Greenfield.

"We had a pop-up drop in between fielders, we hit a batter and we had an error," Keel said. "Before you know it, they had three runners on and would score two runs, but we overcame that."

They did by two runs each in the second, fourth and fifth as Rennicke would scatter nine hits.

It was just the start of better things to come throughout the day.

"What a great opportunity to play great competition," said Keel "We had a sound day with the exception of one inning. …and we were able to show that we northsiders can play some good softball too (laughs)."

He got support for that thought from a reputable source.

"What impressed me most with them is they are very good at all aspects of the game," said Eisenhower coach Jeff Setz. "They weren't necessarily outstanding in the pitching area, or hitting or even defense, but they were way above average in all three and if you do all three well on a consistent basis, you're going to win a lot of games."

THE ROAD AHEAD

UP NEXT: Following the Germantown game, the Highlanders will entertain the NSC's third-place team in Grafton on Thursday (today) at 4:15 p.m. and then take on Milwaukee Lutheran at the same time on Friday. The two tilts will be the start of the league's second session. Then on Saturday, they will make a long road trip to Stevens Point for a tournament at 11 a.m. Point has won six D1 state titles since 2001 including the last two.

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