The Alton Post 126 Junior American Legion finished second in the state tournament over the weekend at Forsyth Park just outside of Decatur. Alton won District 22 and Fifth Division championships to qualify for state.
Since it began in 2013, the Moline Post 246 Junior American Legion baseball team has been successful.
Moline has played in the state tournament three times and finished in the top two twice, including a state championship on Sunday.
Moline captured the state title by beating Alton Post 126, 3-0 in the championship game of the Junior American Legion State Tournament at Forsyth Park, which is outside Decatur.
“They’re an older team,” Alton Post 126 manager Dennis Sharp said. “We knew that when we were in (a tournament at) Wheaton (earlier in the season) and they stole a game from us by balking home the winning run. When I saw them at the state tournament, I knew they were going to be a real contender.”
Still, the Alton juniors were happy to leave Forsyth Park with a second-place finish at state.
“For a bunch of kids who turned 15 to play as well as they did throughout this tournament and maintain their composure, I’m just extremely proud,” Sharp said. “I’m going to have a good core of this team back the next two years.”
Alton finished its season at 26-16. Post 126 was 10-2 during the postseason.
“A lot of hard work has gone into this season,” Alton center fielder Ben Mossman said. “Honestly, if we hadn’t had Dennis Sharp as a coach, we would have never gone to this point. At the beginning of the year, I would never expect us to make it to the state tournament with this team. Last year, we had a lot of very good players and we didn’t make it this far.”
Out of the 15 players on the Alton roster, eight of them are from Alton — Mossman, Simon Nguyen, Cole Akal, Caden Akal, Griffen Bionco, Austin Frank, Parker Isakson and Adam Stilts. Zaide Wilson and Gage Booten are from East Alton-Wood River, brothers Dakota and Cree Stumpf are from Roxana, Ryan Best and Cullen McBride are from Staunton and Rylee Bernot is from Gillespie.
“It’s a young team,” Sharp said. “I had only three players return. When you’re playing junior legion baseball, you’re playing against older teams. When you’re 14 years old with not much varsity experience, you’re facing older pitchers and more mature players.”
Sharp said pitching was the team’s biggest strength during the postseason. Best, Bernot and Stilts were the team’s top pitchers.
“That’s been one of the things that helped us in the two tournaments (District 22 and Fifth Division),” Sharp said. “I’ve been able to work backwards. I would go Ryan, then Rylee and I could get Adam in the championship game where most teams burn their No. 1 pitcher because they don’t have much behind them. Legitimately, I’ve got four No. 1 pitchers.”
Alton was having a roller coaster season before Sharp gave his team a pep talk in mid-July.
“Right around the Wheaton tournament, we were struggling a week or two before,” the Alton manager said. “We kind of sat down and I told them, ‘Baseball is kind of built around the trifecta. We’ve got to start fielding better and hitting better and our pitchers have to start working ahead in counts and stop walking batters.’”
Alton captured the District 22 championship on July 18 after beating Valmeyer 4-1 in the title game at Valmeyer. Post 126 finished 4-1 in the tournament, and three of those games were played against Valmeyer.
“We had to face the No. 1 seed Smithton and we ended up clipping them with good pitching from Adam Stilts,” Sharp said. “Simon Nguyen came up big with a two-run triple in the sixth for us to go ahead and hold on. At that point, they really believed that they can win that tournament. They got Valmeyer and they were on a roll. It’s just a matter of believing that you can do it. They knocked off a lot of older teams in a span of two weeks.”
Alton cruised to a Fifth Division title to advance to state. The squad went 3-0, including an 11-3 win over Salem on July 24 in the championship game at Metropolis.
“Our senior team won the Fifth Division tournament in Metropolis in 2011 and advanced to the state tournament and got third place,” Sharp said. “So one of my coaches had been involved with that team and he talked a lot about that experience. We had a player on this team whose cousin was also on that team. They had a lot of conversation with these older kids about what that can be like. That really helped settle their nerves.”
Alton finished with a 3-2 record at state, both losses were to Moline. After beating Charleston and Valmeyer in its first two games, Alton fell 13-1 to Moline in a winner’s bracket game on Saturday.
Alton bounced back to beat Danville 5-2 later that day to advance to the championship game against Moline.
With the win over Alton in the title game on Sunday, Moline finished its season at 31-7.
“The whole tournament was even the whole weekend,” Sharp said. “There wasn’t a team that really outshined the next. It could have gone either way. It was a very well-run tournament. We were very happy with it.”