The Highland Junior Legion Post 439 baseball team punched its ticket to this week’s American Legion Junior State Tournament after going 4-1 last weekend, highlighted by winning two games on Sunday to finish in third place at the Fifth Division Tournament in Pinckneyville.
Highland begins the state tournament at 2 p.m. Thursday in Salem. Post 439 earned its berth in the state tourney in its final game Sunday night with an 18-8 victory in six innings over Valmeyer in a do-or-die final game of the Fifth Division Tournament. It was the second game of the day for Post 439, and it did not start until 7:55 p.m., which was almost six hours after its first win of the day came in a 7-5 victory over Steeleville.
“I got home about midnight, and it definitely is a day to remember as a player and as a coach,” said Highland coach Derek Reckmann, whose team got hot at the right time to improve to 19-17 on the year. “We had a chance to clinch a berth if Salem had won, but they lost. So we had to play it out against Valmeyer. I told the boys that I would rather earn it on the field than have somebody else do it for us, because it would mean more to us. We came out swinging and were clicking on all cylinders. What it made it even more special is that we were down 6-0 after they put up a six-spot in the third inning.
“But the boys never gave up and kept believing we could do it. This really is a special one, and I hope these boys will remember the rest of their lives.”
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Teutopolis, Breese and Salem will be joining Highland at the state tournament. T-Town defeated Breese in the championship game of the Fifth Division, and Salem is the host team of the state tourney.
Highland opened the Fifth Division tourney with a 13-7 triumph over Chester on Friday morning. Later in the day, Post 439 followed it up with a 4-1 victory over Salem.
Then on Saturday, Highland fell to Breese by the count of 5-2.
But Highland rebounded strongly to post the two wins over Steeleville and Valmeyer on Sunday and punch its ticket to state.
Highland 18 Valmeyer 8
Post 439 had lost all three previous meetings to Valmeyer, and it looked bleak after falling behind 6-0.
Valmeyer had eight straight hitters reach safely en route to erupting for six runs — all with two outs — in the third inning.
But Highland refused to go away and pounded out 17 hits. Jack Etter showed the way after going 4 for 5 with two triples, two doubles, four RBI and four runs scored.
“He is a tremendous talent,” Reckmann said of Etter. “He was excited and jumping around. He set the table for us at the leadoff spot, and we just passed the baton from guy to guy on down the lineup.”
But Highland got right back in the game by responding with five runs in the bottom half of the third. Etter doubled in the frame and Dylan Knebel, Ross Spies and Anthony Wellen each added an RBI single.
After Valmeyer got a single tally in the top of the fourth to go on top 7-5, Highland answered this time with three runs.
Etter got it started in the fourth with a triple, and Knebel followed with a sacrifice fly to pull Post 439 within one. After Spies doubled, Colten Knebel crushed a two-run home run to left field to give Highland its first lead at 8-7.
After Valmeyer tied it up in the fifth, Highland paraded 13 hitters to the plate and exploded for eight runs to take a commanding 16-8 advantage. Etter made the most of his two at-bats as he doubled in his first one and then capped the outburst with a three-run triple. In between, Dylan Knebel had a run-scoring single and Jonathan Dickman hit a two-run single.
Post 439 walked it off in the sixth on RBI hits from pinch hitter Tristan Buss and Griffin Frahm.
Highland 7, Steeleville 5
Post 439 scored four times in the first and followed it up with a three-spot in the third, and that was enough to hold off Steeleville.
Frahm pitched his second game of the weekend. After throwing 44 pitches in the team’s opening win on Friday, Frahm reached his pitch limit when he retired the final batter of the game to clinch the victory.
Dickman went 3 for 3 with a pair of doubles, two RBI and two runs scored.
In addition, Colten Knebel went 2 for 2 with one walk and a double and Paxton Delaurenti and Dylan Knebel also collected two hits apiece.
Breese 5, Highland 2
Reckmann said Breese shortstop Tyler Malone made “four or five plays that saved four runs” and allowed his team hold off pesky Highland.
Colten Knebel gave up five runs, but he pitched well, attacking the corners of the strike zone with fastball while also mixing in an effective curveball.
Highland also committed a couple of costly errors.
Highland 4, Salem 1
Salem had beaten Post 439 twice during the season, but Post 439 avenged those losses.
Dickman was stellar on the bump, as he needed just 82 pitches to throw accomplish the complete game. He scattered seven hits and walked no one while striking out five.
“Jonathan (Dickman) pitched great and the defense backed him very well,” Reckmann said. “We had a couple of really nice defensive plays. It was a really good team effort.”
Highland jumped on top with a two-run first inning. Knebel and Rylan Hacke singled and Dickman walked to load the bases. Delaurenti made it pay off by lacing a two-run single.
Post 439 led 2-1 in the fifth and Salem had runners on first and second with two outs. The batter singled to right field but Frahm came up firing and gunned the potential tying run down at home plate to preserve the one-run advantage.
Highland then tacked on a couple of insurance runs in the home half on Knebel’s RBI double and Dickman’s run-scoring single.
Highland 13, Chester 7
In its first game on Friday morning, Post 439 took charge right from the outset, rallying for six runs in the first frame. Hacke crunched a three-run triple, Wellen added a two-run single, and Delaurenti had a run-scoring single.
Highland also busted loose for a five-run sixth, with the brunt damage coming from a pair of two-run singles by Dylan Knebel and Spies.
Reckmann knew he would need to use Frahm again sometime Sunday, so he limited him to only 44 pitches.