Pawlak leads local class in NSC

Five Grafton baseball players earn conference honors while three from Port Washington receive recognition

Jack Pawlak
Ozaukee Press staff

Grafton High School’s baseball team didn’t have to look far for its team leader both on and off the field this season.

Most of the time, he was parked right behind the plate, unless it was late in the game. Then, senior Jack Pawlak often moved to the pitcher’s mound to earn seven North Shore Conference saves.

For his excellence behind the plate, 60 feet away or standing next to it with a bat, Pawlak was voted to the All-NSC first team.

“It’s just been a pleasure working with Jack the last four years and watching him grow as a player,” Grafton coach Brian Durst said.

“I’m just proud of not only what he’s accomplished but who he is and what he’s all about. He shows it on the field and in the classroom and as a mentor to younger players, just a great young man and bright future ahead of him.”

Pawlak led the Black Hawks with a .381 batting average, .524 slugging percentage, .559 on-base percentage, a 1.083 on-base plus slugging percentage and 16 walks.

He had a .955 fielding percentage, 56 putouts and went 1-1 pitching with seven saves and a 1.56 earned-run average.

Pawlak was selected as the Hawks’ most valuable player and earned a gold glove.The team captain worked with the Hawks’ pitchers and coaching staff to prepare for opposing hitters.

“At times we would have been lost without Jack out there,” Durst said.

Regarding pitching, Durst said he felt good about the team’s chances if the Hawks had the lead after five or six innings. Pawlak, who only pitched in one game last season — earning a save against rival

Port Washington — may have the most single-season saves in conference history, he said.

Pawlak batted third for most of the season, but his high on-base percentage had Durst move him to leadoff for the final two weeks of the year, which helped spark the offense.

Four other Hawks earned all-conference honors. Jacob Aleknavicius and Jake Garncarz made the second team, and Zack Merkle and Zach Brandenburg earned honorable mention.

Aleknavicius went 4-2 as a pitcher with an ERA of 2.58. He led the team with 43-1/3 innings pitched, 29 strikeouts and an opponents’ batting average of .246.

The sophomore was brought up to varsity at the end of last season and Durst wondered how he’d respond to a full year as a varsity pitcher. He turned into the team’s ace and was named its rookie of the year.

“To be able to take the ball every week and pitch in some of our toughest games, the way that he responded to that challenge was so impressive to watch. He went about his work with a great deal of poise and focus,” Durst said.

Pawlak and Aleknavicius also each earned academic all-state honors with grade-point averages of 4.0.

Garncarz, a junior, hit .364 and led the team in hits with 20, runs with 14, steals with seven and total bases with 23.

Much like Aleknavicius, Garncarz wasn’t on the radar as a top conference player coming into the season, Durst said.

“He really was a game changer in our lineup and a high-impact player,” Durst said.

Garncarz earned the walk-off hit in a 1-0 win over Homestead and hit over .400 for much of the season.

Defensively, he moved from second base to right field, where “his speed and athleticism ended up being showcased,” Durst said.

Merkle, a junior, hit .265 on the season and was second on the team with 12 RBI. He clocked two home runs, including a grand slam against Greenfield.

“He hits the ball extremely hard and had the ability to drive the ball into the gaps and over the fence,” Durst said.

Merkle had a .938 fielding percentage and 20 assists at third and first base, saving his team from a number of errors, Durst said.

“He’s gotten himself more and more athletic in the offseason as he continues his workouts. He shows the leadership and work ethic that it takes to be an all-conference baseball player.”

Brandenburg came back from a knee injury that kept him out most of his junior season.

“All offseason the question was how effective will he be when he comes back. He did a great job to rehab from his injury and came back in great shape,” Durst said.

Brandenburg hit .250, had 10 RBI and was second on the team with 12 walks. Five of his nine hits were doubles. He went 2-3 on the mound with 12 strikeouts in 23-1/3 innings.

For Port Washington, pitcher Zach Uselding, catcher Michael Murphy and outfielder Marcus Schmit all earned honorable mention in the coaches’ All-NSC voting.

Uselding went 2-4 in the NSC and started in all of Port’s three conference victories. “When he took the ball we had a really good chance that day,” coach C.J. Koehler said.

He had a 4.7 ERA in 33 innings, striking out 20 and walking 10.

“Zach was one of the leaders in the conference in walks per game. That was one of his strong suits for us all year. He just did not walk batters,” Koehler said.

“We all knew coming into the year that Zach was going to carry us. He didn’t have year he wanted at the plate, but showed what kind of leader he was with his ability to lock in on the mound.”

Schmit was the Pirates’ No. 3 hitter who exceeded expectations offensively and defensively. He led the team in average at .404, hits with 19 and RBI with 10, while only striking out twice.

“He ended up getting a lot of big at-bats in games, and he came through quite a bit for us, driving in runs with two-out hits. He was our guy we knew he could drive in runs,” Koehler said.

In the field, Schmit patrolled center and made only one error in his second year at the position.

“We knew he would be solid for us, but the year he gave us, I felt for sure he deserved more than the honorable mention,” Koehler said.

Murphy hit .333 and was second on the team with six RBI.

“The biggest improvement was him limiting his strikeouts. Last year he had 15, and this year had five. He really helped our offense this year,” Koehler said.

In his third year as varsity catcher, Murphy knew Uselding and Noah Prom well, and it was a luxury for Koehler to know he had a solid player behind the plate each game.

Grafton went 8-8 in the NSC, tied for fourth, and Port went 3-13 and finished in last place. Kewaskum won the conference title with a 13-3 record, followed by West Bend West at 12-4.



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