Written by STEVE OSTERMANN
Wednesday, 28 July 2010 14:20
A familiar foe with an impressive resumé awaited the Grafton Black Hawks in their first game of the WIAA state summer baseball tournament in Stevens Point this week.
West Bend West, the North Shore Conference champion that spent much of the season as the state’s top-ranked team, was Grafton’s opponent in a quarterfinal game that was to be played at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at Bukolt Park.
The winner will advance to Thursday’s semifinals against the winner of 10:05 a.m. quarterfinal between West Salem and New Holstein.
West (33-2) entered the tournament as one of the title favorites. The Spartans are making their 11th state appearance, including six in the last seven seasons, and have won three titles, most recently in 2007.
In two conference games this season, West defeated Grafton, 10-0 and 4-1. However, the Hawks didn’t use their pitching ace, senior Conor Fisk, either time.
“They haven’t seen Fisk, so that should be to our advantage,” said Grafton coach Brian Durst, who has guided his team to its first state appearance since 1983.
“We were thrilled to make it through the sectional tournament, but we realize there are more games to play. We have a lot of respect for West, but we’re not happy with just winning a sectional title.”
However the Hawks’ state quest turns out, they have already compiled one of the most memorable seasons in team history.
Coming off a 4-23 record with a young team in 2009, Grafton was expected to improve. However, the Hawks’ 21-9 record this year — including a third-place, 11-7 mark in North Shore play — underscored a remarkable turnaround.
Their success has been fueled in no small part by the memory of former teammate Matt Malkowski, who died in April after being injured in a car accident.
The Hawks dedicated their season to Malkowski, who would have been a senior outfielder this year. Team members have worn a patch with the letters “MM” and No. 14, Malkowski’s number, stitched on their jerseys.
At the start of the season, Grafton unveiled a similarly designed sign on the outfield fence on their home field. Malkowski’s jersey has been at every game — either worn by his mother Jan or hung in the dugout.
Throughout the community, students and adults have worn “I hit for Matt” T-shirts.
“The kids are excited about the way the season has gone, especially after everything they’ve been through,” Durst said.
“We’ve carried Matt’s memory with us throughout the season. He’s been a huge part of this.”
Durst is well aware that his team faces an uphill battle at the state level. In addition to drawing West in their opener, the Hawks will need pitchers other than Fisk to step up for as many as three games in two days.
Thursday’s semifinals start at 10:05 a.m., followed by the championship game at 3:35 p.m.
“Conor is the kind of pitcher who can put a team on his shoulders and carry them, but we have other kids who can do the job, too,” said Durst, mentioning Dylan Mayer, C.J. Koehler and Alex Nennig.
“They know we have to have other people step up.”
Mayer, a senior right-hander, came through big in the sectional semifinals last Friday with a complete-game effort in the Hawks’ 4-2 win over Brown Deer.
In Thursday’s other state quarterfinal games, New Berlin West plays Franklin at 3:35 p.m., and Germantown faces Waukesha West at 6 p.m.
GRAFTON’S STATE title hopes depend heavily on pitcher Conor Fisk. Photo by Sam Arendt