DENMARK – Bill Miller was aware from the beginning of the season that his Denmark High School baseball team was working within the thinnest of margins. The lineup had holes and the defense was inconsistent. A deep and solid pitching staff would be the lynch pin.
The Vikings were able to ride that pitching to 17 wins and a top regional seed even while those weaknesses were evident at times throughout the season.
On Wednesday afternoon in the Division 2, Section 2, B Region championship, the shortcomings finally caught up to them. Despite a solid performance from starter Jerick Czarneski, the Vikings surrendered a pair of unearned runs and fell 4-3 when Luxemburg-Casco rallied for two in the top of the seventh.
Denmark concluded a 17-7 season.
“We didn’t make the final plays we needed to make,” Miller said. “It’s tough. We were living on the edge for the last week-and-a-half. It just seemed like all season things would pop up and you never quite knew who was going to be here. There was a lot of adversity with all sorts of things. But the thing about it, we kept on winning. They were able to overcome most of it until today and then it bit them.”
The Vikings came into the contest winners of seven straight and 13 of their past 14 – including the thriller 24 hours earlier when they staged their own 2-run rally in the final inning to advance. But as generous as Sturgeon Bay had been to Denmark – dropping a routine fly ball to allow the game-winning run to cross – Denmark returned the favor to the Spartans (16-4) on Wednesday in the form of three errors, four walks and a hit batter.
The Vikings carried a tenuous 3-2 lead into the seventh after grabbing a 3-0 lead in the third. The Spartans got one of those back with an unearned run in the fourth and added another run in the fifth. Denmark, meanwhile, had its chances to add on but ended up stranding 10.
Jack Satori, on in relief of Brennan Genz who had pitched a scoreless sixth, surrendered a long leadoff double just over the head of Vince Wertel to deepest center field. After a pop out, Satori nearly picked off the runner at the second, but the ball squirted lose on the tag. A hit batter, a walk and a two-run error gave Luxemburg its first lead of the game.
Brennen Miller was able to deliver a two-out single in the seventh to extend the season one more batter, but a pop out to third ended it and the high from the win over Sturgeon Bay a day earlier was replaced by the disappointment of a season-ending loss to a team Denmark had beaten both times in the regular season.
“Not having (injured third baseman) Gabe Wertel out there hurt,” Miller said. “He’s our five-hitter batting .310 and we had to shift guys around in the infield. But if we play fundamental baseball, the pitchers throw strikes and the batters have good approaches you’re going to win a lot of games.”
Denmark grabbed the early lead when Satori reached on an error to open the first and came home two outs later when Travis Wellner lined an 0-2 single to left. Czarneski allowed just one hit through the first three innings, and the Vikings added to their lead with two in the third, thanks to three walks. Cole Paplham and Czarneski drew leadoff walks and moved up a base on Wellner’s sacrifice bunt.
Jake Engelbrecht was safe on an error to plate Paplham and Miller followed with an RBI single to make it 3-0. The Vikings had a chance to open things up when Piontek walked to load the bases, but all three were stranded.
A bloop single and an error that extended the fourth inning set up the Spartans for their first run via an RBI single. Back to back singles to open the fifth followed by a sacrifice bunt and a sac fly narrowed the Denmark margin to 3-2.
The Vikings’ best opportunity to get some insurance came in the sixth when Satori ripped a double off the left fielder’s glove and Paplham was issued an intentional walk. Again, Denmark failed to come through with a critical hit.
The Spartans had also threatened in the sixth with two on and one out, but a heads up play by second baseman Josh Pelischek turned an infield fly rule into a 4-6 double play.
Denmark managed seven hits – two by Miller. Czarneski gave up five hits and two runs – one earned – over five innings. He struck out three and walked two.
It was the final high school game for six seniors, including Paplham, Engelbrecht, Pelischek, Vince Wertel, John Otradovec and Sam Sipiorski. It was an especially tough way for Paplham – a recent signee of Lake Land College – to end his Denmark career.
“He’s had a helluva last three years,” Miller said of his staff ace and regular shortstop. “The other guys have always looked up to him. My kid, Brennen, has always thought a lot about Cole. Cole’s going to do fine in college.”
Looking ahead to next season, Miller said it’s going to be up to the underclassmen to decide to improve and to learn to play the game better.
“They’ve got to figure it out,” he said. “Are they going to come back a year older or are they going to come back better. Everyone’s going to be a year older, but are you going to be a year better?”