Heartbreaking defeat in WIAA tournament fails to take the luster off Grafton season dedicated to Matt
The season that started with tragedy ended with triumph.
Forget that Grafton lost to West Bend West, 9-7, in the quarterfinals of the WIAA state summer baseball tournament in Stevens Point on July 28. Who the Black Hawks played for and how they played is what they’re taking from this season.
After a young Grafton team posted a 4-23 record last year, expectations were higher with a more experienced squad in 2010. But several days before the Hawks’ first practice, senior outfielder Matt Malkowski died after being injured in a car accident.
The tragedy could have crushed Malkowski’s teammates. Instead, it brought them together.
Grafton players and coaches had a patch with the letters “MM” and No. 14, Malkowski’s number, stitched on their jerseys. A similarly
designed sign on the outfield fence at their home field was unveiled.
Malkowski’s jersey was at every game — either worn by his mother Jan or hung in the dugout. Throughout the community, students and adults wore “I Hit for Matt” T-shirts.
The Hawks pitched, fielded, hit and ran for him, too — all the way to a 21-10 record and their first trip to state since 1983.
They almost pulled off the upset of the tournament, taking one of the state’s top teams and eventual runner-up West Bend West (33-2) to the wire before a three-run seventh inning by the Spartans sealed the outcome.
A disappointed yet gracious team quickly put things into perspective after the game, in between hugs from family, friends and fans.
“We shook a lot of heads this year,” said Conor Fisk, Grafton’s ace pitcher and a Milwaukee Brewers’ draft choice.
“It’s been an exciting year, best year of all time and I’ll never forget it.”
Added Hawks first baseman Dylan Mayer: “This whole season is just amazing. As a team, we wanted to reach state for Matt, and that’s what we did.”
“We really couldn’t have asked for more,” catcher Skyler Bohn said. “The Grafton community supported us all the way. You just see the turnout.”
Grafton coach Brian Durst was equally impressed.
“I’m just proud of these kids for what they accomplished this season,” he said. “Talk about a team flying under the radar for most of the year.
“For our seniors to be able to finish their careers out on this field is just a tremendous accomplishment, and one I will never forget.”
With two of the North Shore Conference’s best pitchers squaring off, the Grafton-West matchup was expected to be a pitchers’ duel.
However, it became anything but.
Fisk entered the game with a 10-1 record, an earned-run average of 0.87 and four shutouts this season. West’s ace, Jon Nick, was 8-1 with a 1.09 ERA and four shutouts.
Grafton had an edge in that West hadn’t faced Fisk in conference play this season. The Hawks, on the other hand, had seen Nick twice, albeit in 10-0 and 4-1 losses.
Jitters got the best of Grafton in the top of the first inning. Two errors and a walk helped stake West to a 3-0 lead.
But in the bottom of the second, the fundamentally solid Spartans gave it all back and more.
With one out, Fisk was hit by a pitch, and C.J. Koehler and Bohn walked to load the bases. An error on B.J. Weisflog’s grounder scored one run, and Ryan Hartwig grounded into a fielder’s choice that scored another. West didn’t record an out on the play as Weisflog beat
the throw to second base.
Another error on Robbie Doring’s grounder gave Grafton a 4-3 lead.
Kevin Scholz followed with a groundout RBI, setting the table for the second of Mayer’s three singles in the game. This one scored two runs and gave the Hawks a 6-3 lead.
“It started off with a little bit of nerves defensively. We didn’t make some plays we normally do,” Durst said.
“West Bend did the same thing. That’s what Coach (Bill) Albrecht and I talked about after the game. To look up and see six errors combined between our two teams just shocked both of us.”
Grafton added a run in the fourth when Doring reached on a two-out single and eventually scored on a base hit by Scholz.
Trailing, 7-3, with nine outs left, West was looking at its third straight one-and-done state tournament in three years. Grafton chased
Nick after four innings in his worst outing of the season. Facing him twice had proven helpful.
“We knew the stuff he had,” Bohn said. “His fastball had good pop. Straight though, so we knew that was coming.
“He had a little curveball that he threw up there, usually for a second strike. He threw it for strikes a lot.”
But the Spartans began to chip away, and the Hawks couldn’t score against West’s Davis Yach in the final three innings.
In the fifth, a hit batter, walk and one-out single by Eric DuCharme, West’s big gun and the only player in state history to play in four straight tournaments, scored one run. A sacrifice fly by Harry Steldt plated another.
In the sixth, a walk followed by an RBI double by Nate Fischer cut the margin to 7-6.
Entering a tense seventh, West needed one run to tie. Durst wasn’t about to take out his ace, who was to face West’s Nos. 2, 3 and 4 batters.
Fisk walked the first two hitters, and the Spartans had hope. A flyout moved Matt Wolf to third base.
With runners on first and third, Shane Hayes smacked an RBI single to left field but got caught in a pickle between second and third for the second out.
With DuCharme on third, Albrecht called for his bread and butter, the suicide squeeze. A wild pitch bounced up and away from Bohn, and DuCharme scored without a play. West had the lead and frenzied momentum back.
“We didn’t execute the pitchout well,” Durst said. “That changed how we approached the bottom of the seventh a little bit.
“Again, it was our fight to get here in the first place and our fight to get to the seventh inning. That’s what we take away from this.”
A walk and Grafton’s third error led to West’s ninth run.
In the bottom of the seventh, pinch hitter Ben Ernster’s walk was all Grafton could muster. The Spartans escaped, and the Hawks’ emotional ride came to a close.
Fisk allowed five earned runs on six hits and seven walks and struck out 11. He said facing West’s lineup was more challenging than he thought it would be, but he relished the opportunity.
“It was a great game to play in. Going up against the No. 1 team in the state, you knew we were going to have to fight,” Fisk said.
“This is all I could ask for. We went out there, put our hearts on the line and left it all on the field.”
Bohn said, “Conor pitched a hell of a game, couldn’t have asked for more. We just needed to make a couple more plays that we didn’t make.”
Durst said he never seriously considered taking Fisk out of the game.
“He started falling behind hitters late in the game, and that was mostly due to fatigue,” Durst said.
“It was his game to ride out. He wasn’t going to give up the baseball. That was his ball game right there. He fought to the end against a very, very solid lineup, especially hitters that are so disciplined at the plate and such good contact hitters as West is.”
Durst was proud of how his team attacked Nick and took West to the limit, especially after falling behind early.
“We were aggressive enough where we were able to drive the baseball hard,” he said.
“To fall behind, 3-0, to a team the caliber of West Bend West and then come back and put six on the board, it speaks volumes about our kids.”
The game ended a season in which the Hawks listened to their coaches’ three main elements: focus, fun and family.
“Our seniors did a great job to keep the team together through wins and losses,” Durst said.
“The idea of family, that concept is what brought 200 people from Grafton making the 2-1/2-hour drive up here. That’s what unified us as a team on the field, and that’s what makes this a great group of kids.”
One special family member remained with the Hawks to the very end.
“We knew we had an angel watching over us,” Bohn said. “We did this for Matt. We gave our hearts to him.”
West advanced to the state title game, where it lost to Franklin, 11-4.
MORE THAN 200 Grafton fans traveled to Bukolt Park in Stevens Point to root for their favorite baseball team in the WIAA state summer tournament. Below right, Dylan Mayer waited for a pitch during the Black Hawks’ 9-7 loss to West Bend West. Bottom photo, a team statistician was among the many Grafton faithful wearing shirts that pay tribute to Matt Malkowski, a senior who died in April and to whom the Hawks dedicated their season. Photos by Mitch Maersch