'Everything just clicked' during Trenton's unlikely run to state championship

News-DemocratJuly 30, 2013 

— Thirty years later, those who took part in Trenton Post 778's magical postseason run still have a hard time explaining it.

Trenton entered the 1983 American Legion baseball playoffs with a 14-19 record. It won 13 straight games and captured the state championship before its Cinderella story finally came to an end in the Great Lakes Regional Tournament.

"I know we didn't have a great regular season, but it just seemed like we got hot and everything kind of clicked when the district started,'' former shortstop Bruce Perkes said. "After every game, I think we were kind of deemed the team of destiny. Everything just went right. I don't know why, I really don't. I don't think most people could explain it.''

Trenton's 1983 squad will be honored on Friday night during American Legion State Tournament at Pete Schumacher Field in the Trenton City Park.

"Everything just clicked for us for about 2 1/2 weeks, and we just rolled right on through it,'' former Trenton manager Tom Ritzheimer said. "I think we even surprised ourselves. When we got up there (at state), the other five teams probably looked at our record and said, 'What are they doing here?'''

It was Ritzheimer's second season at the helm of a team that didn't have a lot of star power other than pitcher John Groennert, who would have a standout career at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville before playing a couple of seasons in the minor leagues.

"John was a really good pitcher,'' Ritzheimer said. "He just threw strikes and got people out. Everybody wants the guy who throws 90 nowadays, but I think they overlook the kid who is able to get people out with good control and mixing things up with good location.''

Trenton won the District 23 Tournament and then upset Marissa on its way to winning the Fifth Division Tournament as Groennert threw an eight-hit shutout in a 2-0 victory over Centralia in the championship game.

Trenton saved its most stunning victory for the championship game of the State Tournament in Alton.

Trenton trailed Decatur 5-2 going into the top of the ninth, but rallied for four runs to take a 6-5 lead. The key hits of the rally were a two-run double by Tom Draper and a two-run, ground-rule double by Tim Hopcus.

Hopcus already had gone 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and a grounder back to the mound before running up an 2-0 count.

Ritzheimer still gave him the green light to swing away.

"Timmy was just a good hitter,'' Ritzheimer said. "He knew the strike zone. The question was, 'Do you turn him loose?' I had no second thoughts about letting him swing. He hit a ball to right field over the right fielder's head. That's the one play that sticks out even though it was 30 years ago.''

In the bottom of the ninth, Trenton threw a runner out at the plate on a double relay that started with Hopcus and ended with catcher Ken Lake applying the tag to prevent the tying run from scoring.

The next batter grounded back to Groennert for the final out.

"I don't think you could ever imagine (winning state) going into it with a losing record,'' Groennert said. "You look at some of the records of the teams you were playing, it made you think twice, that's for sure. Some of those teams had just outstanding records. I don't think we let that bother us at all.

"We have a lot of guys who were gamers. They loved to play, and they weren't afraid of anything. We didn't play afraid or with fear. We just went out there and did the things we needed to do.''

Groennert, working only two days rest, gave up 15 hits but still got the job done in the championship game.

"I threw nine innings the first game and came back on two days rest,'' said Groennert, who now serves as the coach at Wesclin High School. "Working on short rest like that, it is not a good thing, but you have to do what you have to do.''

Groennert said the secret of his success was control.

"I was mid-80s for the most part and relied on breaking stuff and location,'' Groennert said. "I didn't walk many people. Pete Schumacher kept a record, and I think I only walked like 10 guys through the high school season and Legion season combined. I probably had close to 20-some starts and walked only 10 guys. That's the key: Don't put extra guys on base.''

Trenton beat the host team from Stevens Point, Wis., in the first game of the Great Lakes Regional Tournament, but then lost its next two games.

Perkes said the players from that squad have gotten together for the 10-year and 20-year anniversary of its improbable state championship.

"Now 30 years later, most of us have kids and we're watching them play ball,'' said Perkes, who works as a branch manger for Manpower in Fairview Heights.

Groennert's son, Justin, currently plays for Trenton. He's a catcher and a pitcher, but hasn't pitched this summer because he's still recovering from Tommy John surgery last November.

John Groennert said he tried to steer his son away from pitching.

"I knew what that life is all about,'' Groennert said. "He's right-handed, and if you're not going to be 6-5 and throwing the ball 90-plus, it's hard to make it to the college level anymore. I tried to steer him down a different path with catching, which to me is the second most important position. He did a fine job there, but we needed pitching in high school, so we started converting him over.''

John Groennert will serve as a head groundskeeper for the state tournament.

Ritzheimer managed Trenton for another seven years before he "got promoted'' to manager of his kid's Little League team. He never won another state title.

"It's kind of tough to top when you're only 24 years old and you win a state tournament,'' Ritzheimer said. "I went and talked to Roy Lee, my old coach at SIUE, and he said. 'You're not supposed to win that kind of stuff at that age. You're supposed to be old like me.' I guess I was pretty blessed.''

So was the rest of that 1983 Trenton team.

Contact reporter Steve Korte at skorte@bnd.com or 239-2522.

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