Ground-level competition lifts Falls baseball players to excellence

Zyhowski, Hernikl and Krause earn All-Suburban

Menomonee Falls' Joel Zyhowski steals second base in the sectional semifinal against Arrowhead.

Menomonee Falls' Joel Zyhowski steals second base in the sectional semifinal against Arrowhead. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Aug. 5, 2012

Menomonee Falls - It begins with the Menomonee Falls Little League, arguably the largest in the state, with sometimes 1,000 eager neophyte ballplayers of all sizes, shapes and colors competing hard each summer. It advances through the Junior Indians program and the various high-level traveling teams that separate the wheat from the chaff.

Each player tries to catch the eye of one of the elite-level coaches that dot every stage of development, but for every superstar athlete like Ross McCoy, Matt Rubatt, Doug Dekoning and Alex Erdman who go onto bigger things, there are hundreds, probably thousands who will bump into a wall at some point, their ability not quite matching the stage.

Those who do make it frequently become stars on the biggest stage, the high-powered Falls High School team that is a winner every year and only takes the best that these development programs can offer.

And that is why it is no surprise that the Falls team, despite steep graduation losses, roared to a 27-5 record this summer and a Greater Metro Conference title, and why three names now dot the NOW All-Suburban landscape, having waited their turn, having caught the right person's eye with their talent and determination.

They are senior outfielder Joel Zyhowski, junior infielder Cole Hernikl and junior utility performer Brett Krause.

"The Junior Indians program sets you up so well," said Krause, a shortstop and pitcher. "You get into tournaments and if you compete hard and are good, they will notice you at a young age … because it is such a great baseball community.

"Little League, the Falcons, Junior Indians, it's all very competitive," said Zyhowski, the starting centerfielder this summer. "It's always a good program out here. You get your chance, but you have to take advantage of it … and on our freshmen and JV teams are a lot of bench players who could start elsewhere.

"Kids get used to winning and that's a great attitude to have," veteran Indians coach Pat Hansen said.

Patience needed due to depth

The competition is so intense, that even someone like Hernikl, who exploded onto the scene at second base this year with a remarkable school record of 47 stolen bases and 52 runs scored from his lead-off position, couldn't even make varsity last season as a sophomore.

But in 2012, with a smaller than usual senior class (six members), a decided mix was at the forefront for this team. Seniors like Zyhowski and pitcher/first baseman Troy Kenkel finally stepped into larger roles, but the strong junior class, led by the likes of Krause, Hernikl, Justin Johnson and Brendan Paule got noticed in a big way.

"We knew that we would have a good team," Krause said. "Even though we weren't ranked in the pre-season top 10 (in the state), we knew we could compete."

And that they did, as both Krause and Zyhowski earned first-team WBCA all-state honors and Hernikl second-team.

Krause hit .383 for the season, including an impressive .377 with runners in scoring position. He scored 24 runs, had two home runs with six doubles and knocked in a team-high 40 runs. He had an impressive OPS of .945.

He was also 4-2 on the hill and in 34 innings, with 22 strikeouts, 15 walks and an ERA of 2.91.

Krause was that rare starter as a sophomore last season having found his way through the maze of talent to the varsity.

"His bat in the middle of the lineup was just a huge factor for us," coach Hansen said, "and his arm-strength is just a huge difference maker getting to balls on the ground and in the air. He's a heck of a player. I know the bar is set so high for him and he's still looking to reach it."

Zyhowski had a career-year himself.

He hit .459 (39 of 85) with 33 runs, five doubles, two triples, 32 RBIs, 12 walks and 11 stolen bases. He had an impressive on-base percentage of .510 and an OPS of 1.075. He hit a ridiculous .531 with runners in scoring position and made just one error in 48 chances with two assists.

"Cole Myhra, (Doug) Dekoning , he just continued that run of great outfielders that we've had," Hansen said. "He just tracks down everything. He had just an incredible season and really made things happen for us."

Hernikl shows his wheels

Hernikl was the real surprise. Everyone knew that he had speed, but not even the eagle-eyed Hansen knew how much of a threat he was getting when speedster arrived in camp this spring.

The second-team all-league selection hit .364 (28 of 77) with three doubles, three triples, two home runs and 18 RBIs from the lead-off position, but that only tells part of his story as he walked 30 times and was hit by pitches 12 times (his on-base percentage was an enormous .583 with an OPS of 1.142).

His real story came in the fact that he stole those 47 bases without getting caught once. In fact, going into this season, the Falls school career record for stolen bases was only 36.

"He changes our strategy," Hansen said. "We don't have to bunt when he gets on because if he does get on, it's the equivalent of a double or a triple almost immediately."

Krause and Hernikl will be back for more next year, but as usual, the competition for spots on the varsity will be fierce again. Also motivated by a tough loss in sectional play to Arrowhead, the juniors will have to fight off competition from an intense group of freshmen and sophomores.

In short, it'll be business as usual in the Falls.

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