Photo by Bill Roseberry
The Metro East Bears pose with their runner-up trophy at the American Legion Great Lakes Regional played Aug. 5-9 at Gordon Moore Park. The Bears lost to Midland, Mich., 14-4 in eight innings in the championship game. They went 4-2 in regional action. The regional will return to Moore Park in 2016.
The Metro East Bears knew they would get to finish their season on a large stage in front of their fans, but no one could predict how well they would perform. It was a great way to cap a great season.
Playing host to the American Legion Great Lakes Regional for 2015 and 2016, the Bears advanced to the regional championship game in the first year of the tournament at Lloyd Hopkins Field inside Gordon Moore Park.
It ended a whirlwind season where the team finished 31-10, setting a new record in wins for the Alton American Legion Post 126 program. Post 126 and Edwardsville Post 199 share sponsorship of the team, which included players from Alton, Edwardsville, Civic Memorial, Roxana and Metro East Lutheran this season. Bears is an acronym for Bethalto, Edwardsville, Alton and Roxana.
They definitely meshed well, winning the District 22 title, the Fifth Division tournament, finishing second at state and ultimately second at the regional, losing Aug. 9 to champ Midland, Mich., 14-4.
Manager Ken Schaake saw the chemistry come together almost instantaneously.
“Believe it or not, it did not take that long,” Schaake said. “We played Jerseyville the third game of the year and by then you couldn’t have told which team was which in the dugout or the attitude of the players ... Every one of these kids did something to help us get here at various times during the year.”
For Connor Melton, who played his last competitive baseball game in the regional title tilt, playing for the Bears has been a treat. The 2014 CM grad played at Illinois College last year but is transferring to SIUE and will not play baseball. Melton played outfield throughout the regional for Metro East, but also played shortstop, second base and pitched during the season.
Melton played for the Bears last season too, but his initial reaction to combining programs wasn’t a good one.
“Two years ago when they started this Bears’ team, I got a text and was invited to play on the team,” Melton said. “I said, ‘I’d be interested, but what is it.’ They said, ‘Bears is an acronym that stands for Bethalto, Edwardsville, Alton and Roxana.’ I thought, ‘I’d be playing with a bunch of Alton and Edwardsville kids and why would I want to do that? I’ve played against them for years and I don’t like them.’ But the more I thought about it, I thought, ‘We’d be really good and I’d have a lot of fun winning.’”
Melton credits the coaching staff for creating a fun atmosphere.
“I can’t remember not playing for (Nick) Smith,” Melton said. “He’s always been around and then you have coaches like Shark (Schaake), (Steve) Haug and Tim Stunkel and those guys create an atmosphere where you can have fun in the dugout and on the field and still work toward that goal of winning and we did an awful lot of winning this year, 31 wins, that’s an Alton Legion record.”
Catcher Nick Paulda, a 2014 Alton grad, also played his last season with Metro East on Aug. 9. It was especially emotional for Paulda — who caught every inning in the postseason — he’s logged a lot of innings at Hopkins Field.
“It means a lot and it goes back to Dennis (Sharp) giving me the opportunity,” Paulda said. “This field has been my home. It’s been a lot of people’s home. I played here all through high school and this is my sixth year of Legion ball. I was lucky enough to get to start a year early and I was even more lucky to get to play a year later. The fact I’ve been here so long and treated so well by the coaching staff and Dennis; these guys take care of us.”
The regional made a perfect stage for the players to be able to give back to their coaches and fans in the form of stellar baseball and that’s exactly what they did.
“When I heard from Dennis that he was going to try and get this regional I knew he’d get it,” Paulda said. “He’s done so much for me these last six years and I can’t be more thankful for what he’s done. He gives everything he has to make this field the best field, to make his players the best players. He has your back 24/7.
“I was really excited we had the opportunity to host this regional and be in it. The fact we came out and earned it, getting second in state and being one of two Illinois teams that come here (was special).”
Offensively, Metro East got big seasons from Edwardsville products Aaron Jackson (.341, 3 HRs, 27 RBIs), Jordan Hovey (.337, 4 HRs, 21 RBIs, 20 SBs), Maverick McSparin (.288, 2 HRs, 29 RBIs) and Matt Zielonko (.265, 3 HRs, 11 RBIs). Alton grads Drake Hampton (.340, 6 3Bs, 21 RBIs, 24 SBs) and Paulda (.330, 2 HRs, 25 RBIs) were big too, as were CM’s Melton (.304, 16 RBIs) and Caleb Buhs (.297, 8 3Bs, 19 RBIs) and Roxana’s Chance Foss (.271, 1 HR, 14 RBIs).
On the mound, Alton senior-to-be Jake St. Peters (8-1, 2.15 ERA, 58.2 IP) led the way, while Jackson (5-2, 2.32 ERA, 45.1 IP, 1 SV), Hampton (3-1, 1.21 ERA, 3 SVs), Alton grad Ben Cusac (3-2, 2.82 ERA) and CM grad Zac Cato (1-1, 2.59 ERA) did very well, too.
Rounding out the lineup were Alton’s Jacob Skrabacz and Seth Boeschert, Edwardsville’s Anthony Kindle, Mitchell Krebs and Kyle Zach and Metro East Lutheran’s Kory Loew.
Outside of Paulda, Melton and a few others, many of the lineup will be able to return next season and take another shot at a regional crown. That thought is already engrained into St. Peters’ mind.
“Losing the regional definitely left a sour taste in my mouth,” St. Peters said. “I definitely want to experience something different next year.”
As for this year, it’s one that will stand out for Schaake in his long coaching career.
“I could go through each one of the players, but I’m not going to do that,” Schaake said. “I’m very proud of all of them.”
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