Slightly cooler temperatures by typical July metro-east standards and an attractive lineup of local and non-local teams should help the third annual Southwest Illinois Firecracker Classic live up to its name.
The American Legion Baseball wooden-bat tournament begins at 10 a.m. Friday with host sites at Whitey Herzog Field in Belleville, Longacre Park in Fairview Heights and Gordon Moore Park in Alton.
Pool play continues Friday and Saturday with the semifinals and championship set for Sunday at Longacre Park in Fairview Heights.
"We've had really good luck bringing in teams from all over," said Swansea/Fairview Heights manager Craig Steiner, one of the tourney organizers. "Last year we had four teams go on to play for state championships and one team that went to the regional championship.
"It's got a pretty good reputation of having good competition and I don't think this year is any different."
Morgantown, W. Va., coached by Centralia native Dale Miller, makes its first trip to the tourney and plans to take in a St. Louis Cardinals game and do some sightseeing.
"He grew up in Centralia and played Legion baseball," Steiner said of Miller. "He remembered how good the Legion programs were around here and he always told his kids about how much fun he had playing here and being able to go to Cardinals games."
Also making the trek to the metro-east are defending tourney champ Bryant, Ark. (23-3), Texarkana, Ark. (21-6), Jefferson City, Mo., West O'Fallon, Mo. (23-5), St. Charles, Mo., defending Missouri state Legion champ Eureka, Ballwin, Mo. (20-2), plus Mattoon (19-1) and Washington from Illinois.
Washington is the central Illinois town devastated by a tornado last year.
Bryant defeated Jefferson City 8-4 in the 2013 championship game.
Among the local teams hoping to reach the semifinals and title game are the Belleville Hilgards (23-5), Swansea/Fairview Heights (17-6) and the Metro-East Bears (17-4 overall, 9-1 in District 22 Legion play).
The Belleville Hilgards are coming off a second-place finish at the Eugene Pate Throwback Tournament in Indiana.
Five of their eight pitchers have ERA's below 2.00 led by Bryce Richter (4-0, 1.00 ERA), Parker Beine (4-0, 1.58 ERA) and Brendan Saak (2-1, 1.56 ERA).
Among Belleville's top hitters are Sam Haudrich (.405, eight RBIs, 20 stolen bases, 28 runs), Adam Bauer (.371, 22 RBIs) and Luke Frazier (.341, 10 doubles, 31 RBIs).
Eight Hilgards are hitting at least .300 or better.
"If you look at the way our pitchers have thrown, we've gotten good starts across the board," Belleville manager Zach Rakowski said. "Last weekend we played some really good defense and whenever you can do those things, you're always going to have a chance."
Belleville was 2-2 at the tourney last summer and failed to make it out of pool play.
Swansea/Fairview Heights is made up of players from Belleville East and O'Fallon High School and like Belleville includes some college players.
Among Swansea/Fairview's top players are pitcher-outfielder and reigning News-Democrat Player of the Year Blake Deatherage, Heartland College infielder Tanner Hudson, Belleville East infielder Kevin Horner, Belleville East outfielder Domonic Blaylock and O'Fallon infielder Collin Holton.
The Metro-East Bears are a new co-op team comprised of players from Edwardsville, Alton, Bethalto, Roxana, Marquette and other Madison County area teams.
Longtime Edwardsville manager Ken Schaake is coaching the squad, which includes former Edwardsville High and St. Louis University player Drew Curtis. Curtis is transferring from SLU to Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Former Alton standout pitcher Ray Bailey helps anchor the rotation and Curtis and Roxana star Levi Wallace are among the top hitters.
Steiner said the tourney has a strong economic impact on the metro-east with up to 200 hotel rooms being occupied and the teams and their fans visiting local restaurants and other establishments.
"It has a big impact on what happens here locally," he said.