With four NCAA Tournament appearances, five conference championships, and the most wins of any Horizon League school since 2005, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee baseball team has plenty to be proud of.
In 2013, under manager Scott Doffek, the Panthers went 29-21 and posted a 14-7 conference record en route to winning the Horizon League regular season title. That garnered Doffek his second Manager of the Year award since taking over the managerial reigns from former Brewers pitcher Jerry Augustine in 2007.
The team also had the Horizon League Player of the Year, Mike Porcaro; Pitcher of the Year, Jake Long; and Newcomer of the Year, Mitch Ghelfi, who’s brother Drew is currently pitching in the Brewers farm system.
As important as the team’s success is to the program, the recent achievements have also had the added benefit of seeing many of their top players move on to play professional baseball, including a school high three players being drafted in 2012.
“You’re trying to put all of our guys in a position to get to the next level” said Doffek. “They all have a dream of doing that and when you see guys actually fulfilling that dream, that’s attracted the recruits. And at the same time, I think it’s a mark that we’re doing a pretty good job of player development when they get here.”
Since UW-Milwaukee became a Divison 1 Baseball program in 1991, the school has had 14 players selected in Major League Baseball’s June amateur draft. Of those 14 players, seven have been chosen by the Milwaukee Brewers, including one in each of the last three drafts.
Wisconsin natives Josh Uhen, Eric Semmelhack and Chad Pierce are all right-handed pitchers, who grew up in the state, and each is currently pitching in the Milwaukee Brewers organization after being drafted by their hometown team. They join other notable former Panthers to have been selected by the Brewers, including Mike Goetz (25th round, 2006), John Vanden Berg (22nd round, 2002), Chad Sadowski (23rd round, 1999), and Lee Jaramillo (31st round, 1998).
Pierce, from Fond du Lac, was selected in the 38th round of the 2011 draft by the Brewers, following his senior season at UWM. After originally attending the University of Arkansas as a catcher, Pierce transferred to Milwaukee and quickly found his way in to the rotation.
“He came in and was competing hard for the catching job” Doffek recalled, “and I think about six months in to his stay with us, he asked me if he could throw a bullpen for us, and I said sure. Within about fifteen pitches, myself and the pitching coach both thought this guy could be one of our best pitchers.”
They turned out to be right, as Pierce made 15 starts on the mound as a senior, going 6-4 with a 3.21 ERA.
“Chad Pierce is one of the most competitive people I’ve actually ever been around” said Doffek. “He’s just really really competitive. He’s going to grind out every ounce of everything he has. Every inning. He’s never going to give up or give in to anything. That’s his greatest tool for sure. And he had some good pitches at the same time, but you get in to those long pro seasons, it really, to me, comes down to heart and makeup as much as it does pitchability and stuff. And he is off the charts with his heart and his makeup.”
After signing with the Brewers, Pierce made his pro debut in Helena. In 2012 he helped pitch the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers to a Midwest League championship, going 7-5 with a 3.47 ERA. The 6’1″ righty spent all of last season at High-A Brevard County, pitching in 30 games, starting 11 and posting a 3.40 ERA.
Semmelhack, is an Oak Creek native, who was a 12th round selection of the Brewers in 2012. He started 15 games for the Panthers that same season, leading the Horizon League in strikeouts with 72 in 88.1 innings.
“Semmelhack was a big, strong kid out of Oak Creek High School that we recruited and were fortunate enough to get” Doffek said. “Always had power stuff with upper 80’s to even a 90 mile an hour guy, even in high school. Kind of a herky-jerky delivery, and really a competitive kid. From the time he was on campus, was really never intimidated with anything. Really wanted the ball and you could tell, when he got the ball, he had an expectation of doing well.”
The 6’5″ hurler chose to sign with the Brewers following his junior season at UWM and split time between Helena and Wisconsin in his first season in the organization, starting 11 total games. He returned to Wisconsin in 2013 and spent the entire season there, going 2-6 with a 4.99 ERA in 22 games.
Uhen, who grew up in Oshkosh, became the highest drafted UWM player in the school’s history, when Milwaukee picked him in the fifth round of last year’s draft. Uhen’s time with the Panthers was limited due to an arm injury he suffered his freshman year.
“His mechanics were not good” said Doffek. (He) was very raw. You could tell he just had not pitched a whole lot, but certainly had a quick arm, and we felt like if we could just get to him and close him up a little bit, and time him up and put some size on him, he could really throw. We got him here on campus, and about two months in to our fall ball, we had our scout day and he was up to 95 or 96 as a freshman, which was about seven or eight miles an hour harder than we saw him throw the year before in a matter of 12 months. His arm just took off.
But he was still very raw. And we just felt like if we weren’t going to get this kid timed up pretty quick, he was going to blow out because it was so much, he was so open, and his arm was dragging. It was way behind his release point that there was just so much pressure on his elbow that sure enough, that January, that thing popped.
So we spent that year and the whole next year with having the Tommy John and recovering from that. I think his sophomore year here he got maybe eight or nine innings, and those were pretty much just rehab innings. And then he went out and pitched that summer and then I really think it wasn’t until winter of the following year where we felt like he was really, really 100 percent back. About 18 months after he had the surgery.”
In 2013 Uhen pitched in 21 games out of the bullpen, going 1-0 with a 3.80 ERA while saving four games.
After joining the Brewers, the 6’4″ 21-year old worked 37.2 innings for the team’s AZL affiliate, making 14 appearances and striking out 31 batters. Doffek sees big things on the horizon for Uhen.
“Uhen is a very hard-working kid, and he’s almost off the charts with his arm strength. He’s just got such a loose, lively arm that I will be surprised if that kid’s not throwing 100 at some point. We’ve seen 100 here on a pitch or two, and quite a few times we’ve seen 97-98 in a game. I will be surprised if by the time he’s 25, if he stays healthy, if he’s not really living up in that area. He just has a great arm.”
Pierce, Semmelhack and Uhen are three great examples of the successful baseball program that the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has become.
“The credit really lies with how hard these guys work” Doffek said. “Just staying positive and keeping their eye on the prize. It’s just so great to see those guys get rewarded. And it’s really cool that it’s worked out for the Brewers, for these kids being able to then get drafted by their hometown team that they all grew up watching. I think that’s a pretty cool thing. I know for all of them, it’s an honor to be able to play in that organization, and we have a couple others that are in other organizations too, and that’s an honor as well. But when you grow up going to Miller Park ten times a summer and watching all the games on tv, it’s different. You want to represent your hometown team. I think it’s just a great indication of the program as a whole and really how hard these kids work.”
The 2014 Panthers squad kicked off their season on February 14th. The team is in the midst of playing a 54 game schedule with conference play beginning a week from today, March 14th at Valparaiso.
Brewers fans in the Milwaukee area will have plenty of chances to see UW-Milwaukee in action over the next few months, and get a look at more potential future Brewers, as they have 19 home games scheduled at Hank Aaron Field, and will also be hosting Wright State at Miller Park on Thursday May 15th at 4:00pm, following the Brewers game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Panthers will wrap up regular season play on May 17th before hosting the Horizon League Tournament at Kapco Field in Mequon, WI, May 21st-24th.