The Nicolet baseball team pulled all out all the stops on Monday in the WIAA sectional at Cedarburg.
Team ace Hunter Crass won his third game in less than week pitching on just two days rest in the 5-3 sectional semifinal victory over West Bend East, after just two days prior to that, doing the very same thing in a regional final victory over Cedarburg.
"Man, that's hard on the body," he said after putting ice on his shoulder. "That's a lot of pitching and a lot of pitches."
The Knights also had three generations of coaches on hand Dick Huxtable, Dick Sykes and current leader Jason Grodsky. Former CNI NOW Player of the Year Sam Sivilotti, who was the star of the last Knight team to maker state in 2006, was around too for awhile.
Nicolet also had guts, heart and character rallying back from deficits in both games. They had some astounding defense at times too (rightfielder Zach Pagel throwing out a runner trying to take third on a single in the East win and first baseman Brett Keiper and catcher Kyle Brahm combining to make a great play to snuff out a West Bend West squeeze play attempt in the title game).
But what the Knights really needed was just a couple of more runs in that sectional final against North Shore rival West, as the 10th seed in the sectional iKnights came up just short of their first state tournament berth in seven years when they fell to the Spartans, 4-3.
"We had a great bunch of kids," said Grodsky. "A group whose goal was to run as far as they could together."
With the loss, the Knights finished at 15-16, while the Spartans (23-8), who were the sectional's fourth seed, will advance to a state semifinal against Sheboygan Falls on Friday at Kapco Park in Mequon. The two teams had split a pair of games in the regular season.
Three-year letterwinner Crass said it was not surprisng to him that the Knights made a last season push winning nine of their last 13 games.
"It all came down to focus, focus, focus," he said. "This team just wanted to win."
But the Spartans just had a little more in the end on the warm day in Cedarburg. West had broken a 1-1 tie and taken the lead with solo runs in the fourth (sacrifice fly) and the fifth (suicide squeeze), but the Knights, who had fought back from a 3-0 deficit in the semifinal against East to advance, didn't falter.
They started the sixth with a walk and a single, and took advantage of a mental error on a bunt by West to load the bases with none out.
Braun, who got the save for Hunter Crass by pitching the seventh against East, and who had started and pitched five strong in the final, helped himself with a fielder's choice groundout that brought in one run, and then the tieing run scored on a two-out wild pitch with designated hitter Matt Appleby up.
Appleby eventually made out to end the inning and though Grodsky was happy that the team had tied the game, he felt that Nicolet had missed a major opportunity.
"What has been the trademark for us in the tourney is big sixth innings," he said. "We get runners on base and put the ball in play and make things happen. We weren't quite able to do that today (with the bases loaded and none out)."
And West took advantage. Braun, who pitched gamely and finished with one strikeout and one walk, walked the leadoff man Jacob Kopp in the West half of the sixth. He was relieved by Wagner, but a subsequent stolen base and a sacrifice moved the runner to third with one out.
West designated hitter Matt Rychtik then walked after a long at bat, and after that, Nick Albrecht, the nephew of coach Bill Albrecht, laid down a perfect squeeze bunt to bring in the lead run, pushing the ball between first and second.
There was no play at home.
West succeeded in putting a lot of pressure on the Knights that inning with three stolen bases in the frame. All told, the Spartans finished with seven thefts on the night.
The Knights prevented the inning from being worse when Keiper and Brahm stymied another squeeze play just a batter later. Keiper scooped up the bunt and made a perfect flip to Brahm who put the tag on the sliding runner.
But the damage had been done, and the Knights could not respond, going down in order in the seventh against the Spartan ace Kopp, who was brought in in relief.
Nicolet managed just four hits against three West pitchers for the gamne.
Grodsky was still proud of the team's effort.
"One of the things we talked about was playing like a team and staying together," he said. "We didn't feel like a 10th (sectional seed). We lost a lot of close games."
"This team played together in the end," said second baseman Ben Henken, whose two-run single in the top of the seventh gave the Knights the sectional semifinal win over East. "We were very comfortable as a group by the end of the season."
"We really came together."
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