The Metro East Bears’ American Legion baseball season may not have included an Illinois state championship, but their season continues this week with a much bigger prize on the line.
As the host of the Great Lakes Regional Tournament, being held at Lloyd Hopkins Field in Alton, the Bears were automatically allowed into the regional that, if won, could bring them closer to a national title.
“It’s an opportunity to provide the area with some very good baseball,” District 22 Baseball Chairman Don Wallis said. “We’ve got six state champions coming in, and Wisconsin gets a second team because of the number of teams they have.”
Coached by veteran Legion skipper Ken Schaake, the Bears, comprised mostly of athletes from Edwardsville and Alton, are no strangers to success within the state. They were the 2013 Department champions and in 1998, as just the Edwardsville team, won the national championship in Las Vegas.
Compared to the normal level of play during the American Legion regular season, Wallis said the players at the regional bring better skill sets to the field.
“At this level, if you get the chance to come to the game, you’ll be impressed with how quickly the players are able to get to the ball; what you think might be a double, might turn into a single because the players are much quicker than what you might see at the district level,” Wallis said.
Bears General Manager Dennis Sharp, also a former Legion coach, said the team has had a special season, because it has not relied on only a few players during its duration.
“The biggest part is that we come together as a team, and not one guy continues to pick up the team,” Sharp said. “From game to game, it could be Connor (Melton) to (Jordan) Hovey, whose an All-American, to Nick Paulda. It just seems like it’s not been one person who has carried the team, it’s been the team as a whole.”
Sharp said being the host of the tournament will be nice because it means less travel, which can be tiresome, but does not come without its disadvantages.
“The biggest obstacle is the fact that when you’re hosting, you have to take care of field responsibilities like the tarp,” Sharp said. “We’re going to have to be up late and get up early. You have to plan and worry about some of the logistics you wouldn’t if you’re not hosting. That can come into play if you are worrying about the field conditions.”
The Bears loss to Elgin in the state championship game means the two could face-off again in the regional. Wallis said the Bears’ loss should not affect them, though, as they have faced stiff competition throughout the entire summer season.
“I wouldn’t say they (the Bears) were dominant,” Wallis said. “Belleville had a good team and were competitive; Fairview Heights was competitive. Highland had a respectable team this year. I wouldn’t use the word dominant. I would say they (the Bears) were the best team in the district this year.”
Wallis said the Bears have proved they can come back from a loss already this season, after they were sent to the losers’ bracket at the state tournament last week.
“They (the Bears) lost the first game to Mattoon and came back in the losers’ bracket and played in the championship game on Saturday,” Wallis said. “They showed a lot of resilience. I think they’ll be competitive at this regional, where sometimes the host team isn’t very competitive.”
The Great Lakes Regional starts at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Lloyd Hopkins Field. The Bears’ first game will follow the 4 p.m. game between the Wisconsin B Champion and Elgin. If the fields in Alton are not fit for play, the backup site is at Roy Lee Field in the Simmons Baseball Complex at SIU-Edwardsville.
10 a.m. - Midland, Michigan (41-6) vs. Paducah, Kentucky (18-10)
Immediately following – Madison, Wisconsin (21-7) vs. Troy, Ohio (36-13)
4 p.m. – Plover, Wisconsin (28-12) vs. Elgin, Illinois (34-1-1)
Immediately following - Rockport, Indiana (20-1) vs. Metro East (27-8)