West Allis - The members of the West Allis Nighthawks remember well what happened at about this time one year ago.
They recall how they came from a mediocre 11-10 regular season in the Land O' Lakes Eastern Division to pull off a couple of remarkable victories in the playoffs and ultimately claim the Eastern crown.
The question is: Can they do it again?
The Nighthawks certainly entered this season's playoffs on a strong note in winning their final four contests, including a 7-5 triumph over Butler on July 25, to finish 12-6 in the league.
That tied them with three-time defending Eastern champion New Berlin, two games behind this year's regular-season winner, Muskego (14-4).
They start this season's playoffs at noon Sunday against North Shore at Stormonth Field in Fox Point. If they win, they would play again the following Wednesday in the opener of a three-game set.
"We feel pretty good heading into the playoffs," manager Andy Schwall said. "There are a lot of very solid teams in the East this year. Muskego and New Berlin in particular have been pretty tough, but we feel like we match up well with any of the teams in the East."
West Allis features a strong three-man pitching rotation in Mike Thrun, Cuyler Franzke and Jon Mann.
Thrun is 2-3 with a sparkling 2.65 earned-run average, having allowed 10 earned runs in 34 innings with 25 strikeouts.
"Mike has been a mainstay in our rotation for the last few years and is back at it this year," Schwall said. "He has pitched much better than what his record might indicate. Some of our worst games defensively have been with him on the mound.
"You know Mike is going to go out there, battle and give you a chance to win."
Franzke stands at 3-1 with a 4.32 ERA, working 25 innings and striking out 28 while walking just five.
"Cuyler has great stuff and throws strikes," the manager said. "When he's on, his ball moves a ton and he is really tough to hit. He's thrown three shutouts this year."
Mann went 3-0 with a 1.74 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 31 innings.
"Jon is a big reason we like our chances in the playoffs," Schwall said. "He has really improved his game this summer and has been lights-out at times. His fastball can be overpowering, and he has shown better control and a better curveball this year."
Adding depth to the staff are Brian Qualman (one save, 3.00 ERA), Ian Malmstadt (2-0 record, 2.25 ERA) and Matt Bruss (2-1 record).
"Brian is a true reliever who we know is going to come in and throw strikes," Schwall said. "Ian is a young player who hasn't thrown a lot of innings for us, but when we needed him to make a spot start last week, he threw a shutout.
"Matt is another young player who mixes his pitches well and throws strikes."
The Nighthawks also possess a number of solid hitters and have been bolstered by some younger players.
Leadoff hitter Ryan Welch is batting .390 with eight extra-base hits, including a pair of home runs, and 19 runs batted in, while David Henke is hitting .395 with six RBIs and 13 runs scored.
"Ryan has put together a huge breakout season," Schwall said. "The kid can do everything: hit for average, drive in runs, run the bases well and play good defense.
"David is an excellent defensive catcher and the guys like working with him. It's strange to see someone so young earn the respect of his teammates that quickly."
West Allis is also receiving solid seasons from veterans such as Brian Stoecklein (.377, four home runs, 21 RBIs), Joel Hoberg (.389, 10 RBIs), Schwall (.295, 10 RBIs) and others.
"Our pitching has been pretty good all year," Schwall said, "but our offense and defense are starting to catch up now."
In the July 25 victory over Butler, Scott Sievert doubled and drove in three runs and Joe Schreck, Henke and Malmstadt each brought in runs. Mann allowed seven hits in seven innings and Thrun got the save.
The Nighthawks blanked Waukesha, 8-0 and 13-0, in a July 22 doubleheader. In the first game, Welch was 3-for-5 with three RBIs and Stoecklein 3-for-4 with two RBIs, while Thrun allowed six hits and struck out seven. In the nightcap, Stoecklein, Schwall and Schreck all crushed home runs and Malmstadt hurled a seven-hitter.
The winning streak began with a 4-2 victory over regular-season champion Muskego on July 18. Stoecklein, Sievert and Schreck all drove in runs, and Mann gave up four hits in five innings.
Now comes another chance for a big post-season run.
"I think if we can play good defense, and our offense produces the way we expect it to, we have as good a shot as anyone to win the East," Schwall said. "It won't be easy, but the last couple of seasons, it seems the playoffs have been our time. Hopefully, we have another run in us."
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