Nicolet baseball team found its way late in the season
Knights advanced to sectional final
It's not how you start, and it's not how many one-run games you lose.
It's all about finding leaders and how you finish.
And the Nicolet baseball team under first-year coach Jason Grodsky found leaders and finished in a spectacular fashion to make something out of a season that for a time wasn't going anywhere fast.
The Knights finished with only a 15-16 record, but did make it all the way to the WIAA sectional finals where they dropped a 4-3 decision to eventual state runner-up West Bend West.
"One of the nice things is that a deep tourney run helped take a lot of the sting out of all those earlier disappointing losses," Grodsky said. "We really came together when we needed to."
Grodsky took over for Nicolet Hall of Fame coach Dick Sykes this season. He had been a NOW All-Suburban pitcher himself, served as an assistant at Nicolet and been a head coach at Dominican. He was ready to take on the challenge of coaching his alma mater.
"I think what I learned this season was how to better prepare for certain situations," he said. "There was a lot of teaching involved. Teaching kids how to hit the ball the opposite way and learn what a smart pitch was. Coming back to Nicolet wasn't as big a problem as I thought it would be either. I had been there as an assistant (and a player) and I had done a lot of work with the Glendale Little League, so I felt very welcome."
Not quite ready
The major problem was that in the early games and practices, Grodsky noticed that there were only about five or six players ready to play varsity ball, as Nicolet would hit only .294 as a team for the season.
"The rest took a little time getting ready," he said, "and it took awhile for our seniors to step up (as leaders). Tyler Crass and Nolan Wagner started to step up in that department and so did Hunter Crass."
Still, there were ups and downs. The last major down came late in the regular season. Rains and otherwise foul weather had forced gerrymandered schedules, including some days of two games.
That happened when the Knights beat Slinger in one North Shore Conference game but came back and then laid an egg against rival Homestead, in a 12-1 defeat.
There were some personnel issues to deal with after that game, too, but Grodsky stayed focused on the positive, talking about the Slinger contest earlier in the day and all the things the team did right in that tilt.
Apparently the talk worked because the Knights took off in the WIAA tournament beating higher seeded teams in Whitefish Bay (14-2), Cedarburg (6-2) and West Bend East (5-3) to advance to that final against West.
In all cases, Hunter Crass was the winner and each game, he pitched on just two days rest.
"Hunter did such a nice job stepping up when we needed him to," Grodsky said. "He really stepped up in one big situation after another."
Getting it going
And people stepped up at the plate, too. Sophomore Alex Braun, called up partway through the season hit .455 down the stretch, including several big tourney hits. Tyler Crass hit .417, Zach Pagel, who had a monumental throw from rightfield to cut down a runner trying to go from first to third on a single in the East contest, batted .364 in that time and Ben Henken, who also had a critical two-run bloop double in the East game, hit .400 then, too.
"For all the close games we played and lost that was such an excellent way to close the season," Grodsky said. "A very satisfying playoff run. It was something everyone could embrace."
The Knights junior varsity finished at about .500 this season while the freshmen struggled. Tyler Crass earned second-team All-North Shore Conference after hitting .381 for the season with a team-high 37 hits. Grodsky said the four-year letter-winner Crass only had two errors in conference games.
His twin, Hunter, a three-year letter-winner finished with a 4-5 record with 28 strikeouts and a 4.45 ERA.
Other seniors included Henken (.288), Gabe Kinzer (.227, 2-3 record, 4.48 ERA); Sully Kohnke (.364, hurt most of the season); Pagel (.268); Wagner (.321, team-high 20 runs); and C.J. Putterman.
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