HIGHLAND — While Highland celebrated its American Senior Legion district playoff championship Saturday, the Metro East Bears wondered what happened.
"I believe we were flat," Post 199/126 starting pitcher Drake Hampton said after Highland defeated Metro East, 6-3, at Glik Park to claim its District 22 baseball title.
Hampton added, "It didn't seem like we were ready to play today."
And Highland was ready, willing and able to snare its first district crown since the 1980s. Post 439 advanced to the eight-team Fifth Division tournament that starts Monday in West Frankfort.
Highland is eyeing bigger and better things, namely its first berth in the state tournament since 1974, one year after Post 439 won it. This year's state finals are set for later this month in Jerseyville, followed by the Great Lakes Regional at SIUE.
"It means everything to win the district playoff championship. I'm speechless," Highland manager Harry Painter said.
The winners improved to 14-7 by beating the 17-6 Bears for the second time this week. Highland went 2-0 in the double-elimination district playoffs. Metro East was 2-2, beating Belleville twice.
Yet Highland had the Bears' numbers after Metro East won both regular-season games from Post 439.
"We missed some opportunities and gave them some opportunities," Bears' manager Ken Schaake said. "When Highland got guys in scoring position, they scored. They took advantage of their opportunities and we didn’t do that.”
Curiously, the Bears led 3-0 in the second inning, then Highland scored 6 unanswered runs. The first four of them came when Metro East’s defense sagged. The Bears made three errors behind Hampton, who allowed four hits and four runs — none of them earned — in five innings. Once Highland forged ahead 4-3 in the fifth, Post 439 kept its momentum rolling.
“It took us a while to get things going this season, but our pitching performances lately have been incredible,” Painter said. “It has turned into a spectacular season.”
Winning pitcher Griffin Welz scattered 10 hits in a complete-game performance and often frustrated the Bears. They outhit Highland 10-7, but stranded 11 runners, 6 more than the winners. Metro East left two runners on base in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings to stall any comeback.
“We didn’t seem to have it today,” said Hampton, 3-for-5 with a run-scoring single. “We definitely had opportunities to close the door, but it seemed like our energy was low.”
Teammate Jake Garella noted, “What we can take away from this is that it’s a reality check for us. We lost our focus and we have to go into the regional with more energy.”
The Bears are idle until Aug. 3, when the Great Lakes Regional unfolds at SIUE’s Lee Field. They will sit out the Fifth Division tourney and state finals after finishing first and second in them, respectively, during a 31-10 season in 2015.
“We need to get together the next two weeks and have more chemistry and heart,” Hampton said.
Collin Clayton, Cole Hansel and Garella all had two hits to back Hampton’s three-hit effort Saturday, but the Bears lacked timely hitting.
Highland, meanwhile, came through in the clutch. Blaine Ray’s RBI single and Cody Bentlage’s sacrifice fly capped a two-run sixth as Post 439 increased a narrow advantage to 6-3.
Then Highland left fielder William Greenwald sparkled defensively in the eighth when he made an over-the-shoulder diving catch of Steven Pattan’s long fly ball. The Bears had a single and walk in the inning, yet couldn’t score. Greenwald’s snazzy grab snuffed out their final rally.
“He made a great catcher and that was a killer for us,” Schaake said.
Painter pointed out, “That catch was a spectacular play.”
Dillon Hallemann’s two hits sparked Highland, which bunched its runs together in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. Welz struck out four and walked two to keep Painter from going to the bullpen.
“It’s incredible that Griffin could throw nine innings in a game like this,” Painter said, alluding to the heat. “Everything I talked to Griffin about taking him out of the game, he said he was finishing the game.”
What Welz started, he finished and he pitched around two errors, giving up just one earned run. Hampton wasn’t as fortunate when the Bears' defense collapsed around him.
“Drake did very well pitching,” Schaake said. “We gave them extra outs and didn’t take advantage of things when we were up 3-0.”
So the Bears will regroup and attempt to regain their swagger once the regional unfolds.
“It’s our responsibility to get them mentally sharp,” Schaake said.
DISTRICT 22 PLAYOFFS
(Championship, at Glik Park)
HIGHLAND 6, METRO EAST BEARS 3
Metro East 120 000 000 — 3 10 3
Highland 000 222 00X — 6 7 2
Metro East Bears (17-6) — Collin Clayton 2-4 2B, Jake Garella 2-5, Drake Hampton 3-5 RBI, Cole Hansel 2-2, Tate Wargo 1-3. LP – Drake Hampton IP-5 H-4 R-4 ER-0 BB-2 K-5; Jordan Yenne IP-1 H-3 R-2 ER-2 BB-0 K-1; Storm Coffman IP-2 H-0 R-0 BB-0 K-2
Highland (14-7) — Cody Bentlage 1-3 RBI, Dillon Hallemann 2-4, Jordan Smith 1-4, Chris Dickman 1-3 RBI, William Greenwald 1-4, Blaine Ray 1-2 RBI. WP – Griffin Welz IP-9 H-10 R-3 ER-1 BB-2 K-4