Ernie Millard found himself discussing the season with a pall of frustration on the bus ride home after his Homestead baseball team dropped a 7-6 battle to Greendale on the road June 16. The Highlanders were 5-9 for the year.
“We had just played a horrendous game, and I said, ‘I don’t know what to do,’” Millard recalled. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but we sat there and said we’re going to have to keep working on the fundamentals and get better. I can say in all honesty I’ve never had a team make a turnaround like this.”
Whatever magic Millard and his staff found, the result was a remarkable finish to the season and a place for Millard as the All-Suburban Baseball Coach of the Year. Millard has earned the honor once before, in 1998.
Homestead won its next two games, dropped a battle against Whitefish Bay and then rattled off 15 consecutive wins heading into the WIAA sectional. With only one first-team All Conference player in the North Shore, Homestead even found an additional layer of affirmation in a playoff loss, when it pushed eventual undefeated state champion West Bend West to extra innings before falling in the sectional semifinal, 2-1.
“We felt like we were one of the best teams in the state at the end of the year,” Millard said. “It wasn’t one of those things where my kids were saying, ‘Oh no, we’re playing West Bend West.’ My kids were really excited to play them and beat them. They really believed they could, and it was a game between two really good baseball teams.”
Senior Joe Panella, the squad’s top pitcher for the past two-plus seasons, started the game and dueled Oklahoma recruit Anthony Schlass into the eighth inning before Schlass himself came up with the game-winning hit. The Spartans went on to become the first undefeated summer baseball team in state history.
Behind Panella and fellow senior Austin Jeffery – the aforementioned first-team choice – Homestead’s pitching always had the chops to turn around the season after the rough start. Jeffery pitched only five innings as a junior working back from an arm injury, but he took a massive leap forward in 2017.
“Austin was consistent throughout the entire season for us, and Joe's wins improved dramatically at the end, but he was pitching well early, too, and we were just playing really poor defense,” Millard said. “That puts pressure on our pitching staff and pressure on our offense. We were the opposite of the Milwaukee Brewers; we were giving up runs early on the game, and then there was pressure to catch up.”
Millard, coaching in his 25th season at Homestead, said the sheer turnaround caught him by surprise.
“They really came together emotionally as a team,” Millard said. “That was a tremendous turning point for us, making the decision that no matter what, we're going to stick together on this. Karma is going to do one of two things: help you if you're doing things right or bite you in the behind if you're not. We were really doing things right in terms of expectations and how kids were treating each other.”
There will be some significant losses next year, such as infielder Cole Destefanis, outfielders Eric Zoeller and Dylan Moser and the aforementioned two pitchers. But Millard is encouraged by what he has seen out of younger pitchers such as Mason Skaja, Emory Weeden and Sandro Kulutbonis.
“We lose well over 100 innings that we have to replace pitching … on the flip side, Austin was really a surprise for us, and who knows who the next Austin Jeffery is?
“At the end of the season, I was just as excited about baseball as I was on Day One.”
Recent All Suburban Teams and Coach of the Year recipients
2016 ALL SUBURBAN TEAM: Menomonee Falls' Ty Weber, Oak Creek's Scott Holler headline the 2016 team
2016 COACH OF YEAR STORY: Scott Holler leads Knights to record-setting season
2015 ALL SUBURBAN TEAM: Oak Creek's Doran Turchin, Menomonee Falls' Pat Hansen top our annual team
2015 COACH OF THE YEAR STORY: Pat Hansen takes unified Menomonee Falls baseball team to the top
2014 ALL SUBURBAN TEAM: Turchin, Whitefish Bay coach Jay Wojcinski lead the 2014 team
2014 COACH OF YEAR STORY: Whitefish Bay's Jay Wojcinski led team to record win total in 2014
2013 COACH OF YEAR STORY: New Berlin West's Tom Farina named Now Newspapers All-Suburban Coach of Year in 2013