It's like Oak Creek baseball coach Scott Holler has been saying for a long time:
The four-time state champion Knights do not play just to win a single WIAA playoff game. They play to go to state.
So the second-seeded Knights went with a trio of sophomore pitchers Friday night in a WIAA regional final against visiting Hale, and in one of the messiest, longest games anyone has ever seen, the Knights rallied from a 6-0 deficit in the second inning to beat the Huskies, 14-8, in an exhausting affair that lasted 2 hours and 44 minutes.
Umpires were uncertain if another inning could have been played, as the sun was already behind the horizon at Abendschein Park.
Holler is relieved that they didn't have to try.
"We're still a youngish team, and we're still learning," he said. "We can look very ugly for an inning or two but that is our M.O. At some point, (the bad innings) have to end or our season will come to an end."
It was almost the latter for the Knights (22-6), but instead they will advance to a 3 p.m. Monday sectional semifinal against Muskego at Greendale. Top seeded Greendale will take on New Berlin Eisenhower in the other semifinal.
Holler is happy that his gamble Friday night paid off. He is of the thinking that only ace Jesse Sustachek has a chance to beat powerful Greendale in a potential sectional final, and he will likely go with Mitch Makarewicz in the semifinal against Muskego.
"We're here to make to state," he said.
Meanwhile, the Huskies (13-18) weren't that far away from pulling a major upset. Coach Paul Dooley said a lack of pitching depth and a questionable strike zone by the home plate umpire made life difficult for his team.
"My number one pitcher Sam Mihalski got hurt (in a motorbike accident) a few weeks ago," said Dooley "He broke his collarbone, so we didn't have him to throw. Mials (McMurray), my number two, has really picked it up, but today we had to go to our three and four kids and we couldn't find the plate.
"It didn't help that nothing was called (by the home plate umpire). When high-school kids don't get strikes called, that's how you get 12 and 14 run games."
Hale pitchers wound up issuing 12 walks on the night, but in the early part of the game, it was the wildness of Knights starter DJ Ellifson that was at issue. Ellifson, who had blanked the Huskies twice earlier this season, was coming off two weeks of rest after noticing some shoulder problems.
"I didn't expect DJ to do what he did those other times out," said Holler. "I was just hoping to get four innings out of him, but he just didn't have it tonight."
In just over an inning of work, Ellifson issued five walks and left trailing, 3-0. That the Huskies put down two perfect bunts just added to his problems.
Another Knights sophomore, Joey Richter, came in and got two quick strikeouts but couldn't quite escape as the Huskies' Derrick Oleson lashed a two-run single. After a hit batter, Sam Valona hit an RBI single to make it 6-0 heading into the third.
But the Knights did not panic. Hale starter Jo Jo Breznik was pulled for wildness in the second by Dooley, still with a 6-0 lead. Makarewicz gave the Knights the lift they needed cracking a base-clearing three-run double in the frame to cut the deficit to 6-3.
The Knights could have gotten closer, but for the second time in as many innings, the Huskies threw out an Oak Creek runner on the basepaths. That would happen three times the game.
Hale pulled back the momentum in the fourth as the Huskies touched Richter for two runs to make it 8-3, as Breznik and Sam Valona both had timely hits.
But that would prove to be the high-water mark for the Huskies.
Dooley was forced to make another pitching change in the fourth as the Knights used two walks and five hits to score five times and tie the score.
Ryan Farr, Matt Hargreaves, Doran Turchin, Mitch Hart and Josh Duchniak all knocked in runs.
Another sophomore, Curtis Sippy, replaced Richter in the fifth ("We knew Joey could't go through their lineup a third time," said Holler). Sippy pitched three shutout innings, earning the win.
He also helped himself in the pivotal fifth, as after two were out, Hale pitchers would give the Knights three more free passes to load the bases. Turchin then came up and ripped a hard line drive off the shortstop's glove to score two runs and give the Knights the lead for good at 10-8.
After another walk, Sippy, who came in with only three at-bats all season, came up and looped a flair into short right that plated two more runs and made it 12-8.
"He's now 2 for 2 on the season," chuckled Holler.
Holler said he implored his hitters to be more patient against the young and inexperienced Huskie pitchers.
"Early in the game we were getting ourselves out on 3-0 and 2-0 pitches," he said. "We wanted to make them work because we knew that they were a little short (of pitching) and that their other guys didn't have a lot of experience.
"That's always an objective in baseball, get into the (opponents') bullpen."
Turchin picked up his fourth RBI of the game on a walk in the sixth, and Hart plated another score to make it 14-8 later in the frame.
The two then combined to snuff the Huskies last spark, when Hale's Cameron Holcomb ripped a single to start the seventh but tried to stretch it into a double only to have the outfielder Hart throw to Turchin covering at second to nab him.
Dooley was understandably discouraged by the loss.
"We had a motto entering the game of 'Why not us?,'" he said. "But we came out there and just couldn't pitch. ...I could have stood a 4-0 game, even a loss, because that would have been a much better game, but there just wasn't a strike zone (that the pitchers could use)."
Holler was pleased with his team's tenacity. If Oak Creek had only picked up a one or two run lead late in the game, he would have gone with the more experienced Makarewicz over Sippy, but since he didn't have to do, he can now institute his sectional plan on Monday.
"Now we're a little excited," he said as his players were high-fiving each other in the background. "Now we're set up with Mitch (Makarewicz) on Monday and then maybe Jesse (Sustachek) later."
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