Two of the top Junior Legion baseball teams in the metro-east took their rivalry all the way to the state tournament in Quincy before Breese Gray finally walked off the field as state champion.
Breese Post 252 lost to Swansea-Fairview Heights in the Fifth Division Tournament the week before, but left Quincy with the state championship thanks to a 4-3, nine-inning victory Sunday.
With only 12 players on the roster, Breese Gray (36-5) used a resourceful approach to winning a state title. The players returned home to a firetruck parade through Breese, followed by a celebration at the Breese American Legion hall.
“It took all 12 of them to win it,” said Breese manager Mark Berndsen, who capped his 10th season with the program’s biggest win. “Everybody contributed in some way, shape or form to win the state tournament. We put it all together at the end and got hot there.”
Swansea-Fairview Heights (30-9) took a one-run lead into the bottom of the seventh, only to watch Breese tie it to force extra innings. Both teams had to rely heavily on their tired pitching staffs throughout the weekend, with Swansea-Fairview knowing it had to win two games in a row Sunday against unbeaten Breese in the double-elimination event.
“I rolled the dice trying to get three outs and push it to the second game,” Swansea-Fairview manager Alex Seel said. “Breese has some good hitters and put the ball in play. We used four pitchers in that nine-inining championship game trying to get through it. All of my guys competed to the best of their ability and gave 10 percent more than they normally had.”
Leadoff hittter Kolby Schulte, who made the all-state tournament team along with teammates Dylan Wilson, Jack Strieker, Trevor Kohrmann and Jared Niemeyer, led Breese with a .496 average this summer. Schulte had 17 doubles, 23 RBIs, 26 stolen bases and 48 runs scored.
“Whenever Coach put the team together, we knew we had a shot at going pretty far,” Strieker said. “He told us that if we worked hard, we were the best team out there. We had that mentality going in there.”
Down 3-1 going into the fifth, Breese cut it to 3-2 and then tied it in the seventh on an RBI single to right by Jayce Timmermann.
It was a drama-filled ninth inning that led to Breese’s first Junior Legion state title.
Nolan Robben reached on a walk and came around to score on Niemeyer’s ground ball to short that produced a wild throw. Breese celebrated its state championship win, but the umpires huddled and determined that the home plate umpire had called it a dead ball.
The runners were placed at second and third and the game continued.
“We thought the game was over and we were celebrating,” Berndsen said.
After an intentional walk to load the bases, Robben scored the winning run from third when he beat the throw home on a ground ball to second hit by Wilson.
“He hadn’t had that many opportunities to swing the bat for us this year but had done a heck of job with pitching,” Berndsen said of Wilson, 8-1 with a 1.05 ERA on the mound. “(Robben) got a good jump off third and a good slide, he just beat the throw. The celebration was on the for the second time and it was like we won the state championship twice.”
Strieker contributed three shutout relief innings in the state championship win and pitched another shutout at the state tourney. He admitted the whole two-celebration thing seemed a bit surreal.
“We got to celebrate twice, so that was fun,” he said. “The first one was better at the time, but the second one was ultimately better considering we actually won the game. It was pretty ironic because we lost to them (the week before) the same way they basically lost to us.”
The Breese roster included Schulte, infielder Wil Rakers (.298, 30 RBIs), Strieker (.396, 13 doubles, 23 RBIs; 6-0, 0.62 ERA), catcher Jacob Dumstorff, Niemeyer (.418, 24 RBIs), first baseman Matt Walters (.407, 28 RBIs), Timmermann (.286, 30 RBIs), Austin Rakers, pitcher-infielder Lukas Whitten, Robben, Trevor Kohrmann (6-3, 1.86 ERA) and Wilson.
Wil Rakers belted a three-run homer in a 12-0 win over Quincy.
Other coaches were Dennis Rakers and Berndsen’s son, O’Fallon High assistant Phillip Berndsen.
“Winning the state Junior Legion championship was special,” Mark Berndsen said. “Winning it coaching with my son made it very special for me.”
Swansea-Fairview Heights was trying for its second state title since 2009. The Giants beat Breese in the Fifth Division tourney but couldn’t do it again.
“It’s a great rivalry between us and Breese,” Seel said. “We always schedule them four or five times throughout the summer and it just so happened that we faced each other in state tournament.”