They come from different towns and different high schools, but the Metro East Bears have proven to be a solid fit on the baseball field.
Unbeaten throughout the playoff games this summer, the Bears are taking aim at a state championship this week at the Illinois American Legion Baseball State Tournament. Six teams will compete in a double-elimination event being held at Carol Stream near Chicago.
The “Bears” part of Metro East uses the first letter of the cities the team is drawn from, with players from Bethalto, Edwardsville, Alton and Roxana.
Alton combined in 2007 with Bethalto, then added Edwardsville in 2010 and later picked up Roxana. This is the program’s first state tourney appearance since Alton took third place in 2011 at Galesburg.
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“This has been a work in progress over the last seven years,” Bears General Manager Dennis Sharp said. “With Legion teams kind of dying off and kids finding other places to play, it’s almost become a necessity. You’re starting to see this more nationwide and state-wide, really.”
Metro East opens state tourney play at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday against Mattoon (20-5). Elgin (31-1-1) meets Galesburg (33-6) at noon and Northwest (19-9) faces tourney host Wheaton (17-11) at 7 p.m.
The Bears rolled through the District 22 and Fifth Division playoffs without a loss. They are already ensured a berth at the Great Lakes Regional Tournament next week as the host team at Lloyd Hopkins Field inside Alton’s Gordon Moore Park.
Sharp said they would much rather qualify as state champs than take advantage of host team status. If the Bears win state this week, the second-place team at the state tourney would also get a bid to the Great Lakes Regional.
“These are competitors,” Sharp said of the Bears. “These are special breeds of kids. They’re not looking for an easy ride. They know the berth’s here but they’re not talking about it. I put them in three vans this morning headed to Wheaton trying to win the state tournament.
“They’re going up their on a mission and they’re going to wok their butts off to do it.”
Missouri State recruit and recent Edwardsville graduate Jordan Hovey was named Most Valuable Player at the recent Fifth Division Tournament.
Infielder Chance Foss (Roxana) hit a walk-off grand slam last Friday to cap a 12-0 victory over Teutopolis that gave the Bears the Fifth Division Tourney. They went 3-0 at the event, including two victories over Teutopolis with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville recruit and recent Edwardsville grad Aaron Jackson tossing a shutout in the title game.
Among the starters are catcher Nick Paulda (Alton), first baseman-pitcher Maverick McSparin (Edwardsville), second baseman Jacob Skrabacz (Alton), Hovey and Connor Melton (Civic Memorial) at short and Jackson at third along with Drake Hampton (Alton).
Hampton was the District 22 Player of the Year.
Matthew Zielonko (Edwardsville) is in center with Anthony Kindle (Edwardsville) and Caleb Buhs (Civic Memorial) also in the outfield.
The pitching staff includes Jacob St. Peters (Alton), Jackson, Korey Loew (Metro-East Lutheran), McSparin, Zac Cato (Civic Memorial) and Ben Cusac (Alton). Hovey and Hampton are the top relievers.