I won’t soon forget where I was the last two seasons when the Alton and Edwardsville baseball teams took the field for regional championship games.
The 2014 game was the best I’ve ever covered. A flare down the right field line from Edwardsville’s Jake Garella off Alton ace Bryan Hudson was the sole difference in a 1-0 EHS win at Lloyd Hopkins Field inside Gordon Moore Park.
On Monday, the 2015 edition of what has become the annual Tigers vs. Redbirds regional title showdown took place at Tom Pile Field inside the District 7 Sports Complex in Edwardsville. Unfortunately for the Birds it was another loss, with EHS prevailing 5-2, but that didn’t make it short on drama.
Roughly 1,500 fans from around the area attended, filling temporary bleachers supplied for Monday and at one point both bullpens. It had everything local fans could want, a pair of 30-win baseball teams with a long rivalry and a top prospect pitcher in Hudson on the hill.
According to EHS head coach Tim Funkhouser, it was the most fans packed into Tom Pile Field since a 2007 sectional game between the Tigers and Highland with Jake Odorizzi on the mound. Then a high school junior, Odorizzi is now a starting pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays.
“We told our guys it was the same situation with Highland and Odorizzi,” Funkhouser said. “We knew there were going to be people here. It didn’t matter what the weather was, or what time it was, there were going to be people here.”
Funkhouser put Hudson in the same class as Odorizzi at the prep level and with the MLB Draft set for June 8-10, he thought that played into the hype on Monday.
“I think it was a little bit of everything,” Funkhouser said. “The success our team has had, (Hudson) and obviously his draft potential, too. This is a game that a lot of people had anticipated for a long time.
“We faced Odorizzi on this field, we didn’t beat him, but we were able to outlast him (2-1 victory) and take him out and Hudson has the same type of feel, top notch now, but also an exceptionally bright future.”
And while Hudson’s hype and the Tigers’ 35-1 record this season definitely played into the amount of people on Monday, I think this rivalry has grown to run deeper than just that.
Monday marked the seventh time the Tigers and Redbirds had met in the regional round of the playoffs since the expansion to a four-class system in Illinois in the ‘07-08 season. After Monday’s win, EHS now boasts a 4-3 lead in that series.
Monday marked the fourth straight meeting in the regional title game for the two programs.
Hudson was on the mound as a sophomore in 2013 when the Birds beat EHS 2-0 in the regional finals. That win helped the 6-foot-8 southpaw’s ascension begin to where he is now and Alton to reach the sectional finals in ‘13.
With two Southwestern Conference games a year and an annual meeting in the regional, it’s definitely taking the rivalry to new heights.
“We told them when we were going through the line (Monday), there’s no bad blood, no issues,” Alton head coach Todd Haug said. “You can call it a rivalry, I guess it’s a friendly rivalry, but we’re behind them.”
Hudson added, “It’s a great rivalry. They may not look at it that way, but they’re one of the better teams we face, if not the best team we face. We hold our own against them, I guess you could say.”
Maybe that rivalry with Edwardsville has a slight impact on AHS improving as a program. The current senior class for the Birds has enjoyed the best run in school history, winning 105 games in four years, including a school-record 30 wins this season. Both Hudson and Matt Hopkins were a major part of the ‘13 run.
As Hudson and Hopkins and the likes of Jacob Skrabacz and Drake Hampton graduate the Alton program, and players like Daniel Lloyd, Jordan Hovey and Aaron Jackson leave EHS, the rivalry will continue. For these two programs it’s reload rather than rebuild, and while it may not reach the heights of what was witnessed Monday, there’s no doubt Redbird and Tiger fans will be stoked when the two teams meet on the diamond again next year.
Haug’s attention is already turned to 2016.
“We’re going to reflect on this and be very proud of what we did and we’re going to start preparing for 2016,” he said. “I think the seniors wouldn’t have it any other way. We give them everything we have while they’re here and now we wish them the best... They’ve set the bar high and we’ll look to expand on what they’ve done.”
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