Lake Country Publications Sports Director JR Radcliffe provides tidbits and details from the Lake Country prep sports scene to the Wisconsin sports world at large. His weekly column presents exclusive interviews, commentaries and observations.
I wrote this Preps Alcove column in 2010, and this summer marks the five-year anniversary of what I consider the greatest upset I've witnessed at the prep level. If one ever needs a reminder about the unpredictability of the baseball playoffs, look no further than Kettle Moraine's win over West Bend West in the 2008 state quarterfinal. Comments from Fred Gromalak are new.
Like many sports departments, the writers on staff at Lake Country Publications like to prognosticate about upcoming matchups in high school athletics. Frequently, someone will say, "That game is going to be a blowout," and in most cases, they're absolutely right.
But every now and then, my response to that prediction will be, "Kettle Moraine and West Bend."
It's a reference to the 2008 WIAA summer baseball playoffs, when I went to Stevens Point fully expecting the vaunted West Bend West team to topple Kettle Moraine in the quarterfinals. The Lasers weren't a bad team by any stretch, coming in with a 23-9 record and back-to-back one-run victories in the sectional to get to state.
But the Spartans were loaded. They came in with a 28-1 record and were heavily favored to repeat as state champions. Paul Hoenecke was a two-time area Player of the Year (as selected by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel), a draft pick by the Detroit Tigers and future player at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"The night before in the hotel, we met with the coaches and kind of went through the lineup, discussed which hitters had different tendencies," catcher Fred Gromalak said. "The day of the game, (Cody Smith) threw nothing but strikes. He has a great changeup from the lefty position. He threw first pitch fastballs and once we got ahead, we could go to those offspeed pitches and keep them off balance. A lot of fly balls, that helped us out, and the outfield did a great job of making quick outs."
Catcher Ryan Schilter was one year away from earning his own area Player of the Year honor, and eight players in the game had appeared in the previous season's state-title game – an 11-1 victory that ended early on account of the run rule.
So even though KM was a top seed in its bracket and a team with several quality players, this was supposed to be no contest. I admit I skipped getting a hotel reservation and instead made plans to be in Milwaukee the next day, fully believing the Lasers would be eliminated.
"Our guys knew what we were up against; I didn't have to tell them they were defending champs, and we had nothing to lose," said former KM head coach Armando Hernandez. "Cody Smith pitched a great game, Fred Gromalak called a great game (behind the plate), and we had no errors."
When Tyler Kohls and Hoenecke both pounded rockets to the outfield in the first inning off changeup specialist Smith, that seemed to foretell what was ahead. Both fly balls were flagged down, however, and it was scoreless after the first inning. When two deep fly balls by Matt Meisenheimer and Hoenecke were caught in the third, it was still scoreless.
"We knew they were going to hit, and defensively, we had our guys in the right spots," Hernandez said. "One of their dads came up afterwards to me and said it was a great defensive game because we had everybody deeper to try and stay out of the big inning."
West had scored in double digits in 16 of 29 games during the year, so I was waiting patiently for the offensive surge. On the other side, West starter Joe Lehnerz came into the tourney with a 0.88 ERA.
I was surprised when the Spartans loaded the bases in the fourth and still don't score, but I was floored when the Lasers collected four runs in the bottom half. With no runners on and two outs, the bottom of the order took advantage of an error by the West shortstop and kept churning. David Galando blooped a two-run single, and eighth batter Aaron Keniski laced a two-run opposite-field double. The Lasers would only get five hits in the game, and four came in that inning.
Only one team had scored four runs off West Bend West in a single game all year, let alone in one inning, coming into the state tournament. When Smith retired the side in the fifth and it was still 4-0, the possibility for an upset became very, very tangible.
"There were a lot of surprised people," Hernandez said. "Our guys were even kind of in shock, but as the game went on, they started to believe."
West's Adam Martz homered leading off the sixth, but Smith allowed nothing more. The big hitters were due up in the seventh, however, so it's a relief when first baseman Casey Casper made a great backhanded spear to retire Kohls and put KM two outs away from the state semifinals.
After a dropped third strike allowed Meisenheimer to reach – with Hoenecke and Schilter due up next – I remember a flicker of doubt telling me that maybe it was a mirage, after all. But Smith, who struck out only two batters and allowed seven hits, retired them both to give KM a ridiculous upset, 4-1.
"When we found out that we were playing West Bend West, the best team in the state, 64-2 the past two years … all I knew is I wanted to be the one to beat them," Smith said after the game. "I knew these guys were the real deal, so I wanted to prove myself."
The Lasers went on to win their semifinal game the next day in extra innings, 13-12 (a game that deserves its own retrospective story), and fell in the state final against Marquette, 12-1, after taking a 1-1 tie late into the game. Despite the loss, it was hard to see the trip to Stevens Point as anything other than a success.
"Even if we didn't win state, just doing that wrote how our team did that season," Gromalak said. "If you look back at it, you couldn't write it better for us to play flawless baseball."
The state baseball tournament is upon us, and games like this remind us anything can happen, especially in baseball. There will always be juggernauts and underdogs, and rarely will Goliath slip up, but every now and then … Kettle Moraine and West Bend.
Pictured: (Above) The state runner-up team poses for a team photo in 2008. (At right) Cody Smith throws a pitch against West Bend West in the state quarterfinal. Photos by Russ Pulvermacher.