When a team has a pitching staff made up of spit and bailing wire like Homestead baseball coach Ernie Millard admits that he had this season, don't be surprised when the spit dries or the wire frays sometimes.
Much like it did the night of Friday, July 25, at Kapco Park in the WIAA State Summer Baseball championship game, as Brookfield Central woke its long slumbering bats and beat Homestead for its fourth state title in a 9-2 decision.
"That has been a ghost that has clung to us all season long," said Millard of his pitching, "and tonight it finally caught up with us. We competed like crazy. But we knew we would have to play a perfect game to beat them."
The loss denied the Highlanders a fourth state title of their own (to go along with crowns in 1974, 1978, and 1994) and closed out a compelling season at 26-8.
Meanwhile, the high-expectation Lancers (29-6) resurrected a season that had started out fast at 21-1, and then hit a major skid with a 1-5 run that cost them the Greater Metro Conference title and a lot of their confidence.
Lancer coach Jeff Bigler, a Homestead grad himself, was both relieved and proud at having finally got the job done in this his 12th year at the helm.
"No doubt this shook a few monkeys off our back," he said. "We knew we had the talent, but to experience what we experience in sports is just a microcosm of life. We started out 21-1 and then we go 1-5 and not win the Greater Metro Conference, the greatest conference in the world.
"We had to pick ourselves up. People were saying what is wrong with the Lancers. Now, it can be seen that there's clearly nothing wrong with us."
But it took until the third inning to make that clear. The Lancers scored two off of Highlander starter Erik Skaar in the first as Elijah Goodman had an RBI single and Jonathan Keane a run-scoring groundout.
Homestead fought back against powerhouse Lancer pitcher Luke Sommerfeld, as a walk to Eric Wade was followed by a sacrifice, a wild pitch and an RBI groundout by Mitch Sutton made it 2-1 Central.
Strong defense kept the Highlanders close in the second, as Skaar took a hard hopper and threw to Sutton at third for an out at third on a contact play.
Homestead tied the game in the second on an RBI double by Mike Schulz and after Sommerfeld then hit Jared Stieve with a pitch with none out, the Highlanders were poised for a big inning.
But it never happened.
Sommerfeld's problems forced Bigler's hand as he pulled him for the softer throwing but far more effective Matt Ausloos.
"When you see Matt Ausloos, you don't see a relief pitcher, you see a pitcher," said Bigler.
That much became quickly obvious as Millard called what Bigler did a "genius move"
It was hard to argue with the results.
Highlander outfielder Luke Neusen executed a perfect sacrifice off Ausloos to move the runners up to second and third with just one out.
Homestead was poised to take control, but then disaster struck. Miscommunication on what was supposed to be a safety squeeze led to an inning-ending double play as Luke Lebesch popped out to the Lancer catcher who threw over to third to finish off Schulz.
"Not getting the safety squeeze down took the gas out of our tanks, offensively," said Millard, who noted that the runner came down too fast, too soon. "We just couldn't afford to do that against a team as good as Central."
Because the Lancers took full advantage of the Highlander mistake.
Two singles to start the Central third chased Skaar and brought in Garrett Erfourth, but Erfourth had problems of his own. After a sacrifice, Keane lashed a two-run single to give the Lancers the lead for good and, after a walk, Aaron Hammond made it 5-2 with another run-producing safety.
At that moment, the Lancers had all but secured their title because Ausloos (one strikeout and one walk) never gave Homestead another chance. He scattered three hits over the remaining five innings and let only one runner get to second base.
"When he's on, he's a lights-out pitcher," said Bigler, "as good as any pitcher in the state."
"The kid was fantastic," agreed Millard.
Central added three more insurance runs in the fourth with help from the Highlanders. Erfourth and reliever Chris Mueller combined to walk three batters, then a wild pitch and two sacrifice flies made it 8-2.
It marked only the third time in the last 16 games that the Lancers had reached the eight-run plateau and from that point on to the final out, they were unstoppable.
Homestead continued to play hard, getting a great play from Sutton at third as he threw out a runner from his knees after making a diving stop while senior pitcher Ben Garstecki, the hero of the afternoon's semifinal win over Oak Creek (see separate story), completed his career on a fine note, putting down the six Central batters he faced in order.
Junior shortstop Trevor Cho had three of the team's five hits.
Millard had a good talk with the team and then hugged and spoke to each player one-by-one after the awards ceremony.
He knew that this squad had gone further than anyone could have foreseen given that the entire pitching staff from last season graduated.
"I hate to talk about over-achieving," Millard said, "but if ever a group did that it was this one. They did absolutely everything they could with their ability. Absolutely everything and they handled this defeat with class."
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