The Metro East Bears Senior Legion team poses with the second-place trophy at the Great Lakes Regional on Aug. 7 at Roy E. Lee Field in Edwardsville. It’s the second straight year the Bears finished runner-up in the regional, which was in Alton last year. Next season it will move to Toledo, Ohio.
Playing host to the American Legion Great Lakes Regional has been a major honor for the Metro East Bears.
They proved that with their play on the field. On Aug. 7, the Post 199/126 Senior Legion squad reached the final of the regional for the second year in a row, ultimately finishing runner-up, like in 2015. The winner of the regional advances to the American Legion World Series, conducted annually in Shelby, N.C.
A change of venue for the regional couldn’t detour the Bears.
After putting on a show at Alton’s Lloyd Hopkins Field inside Gordon Moore Park in 2015, Metro East showed the same perseverance in 2016 at SIUE’s Roy E. Lee Field in Edwardsville.
The road wasn’t the same, but the performances were similar. The Bears wrapped up 2016 with a 20-8 mark, but sat idle after bowing out of the Division 22 Tournament to Highland on July 16. In 2015 Metro East rolled to division and district, and were second at state before earning a spot in the regional. The host team gets an automatic bid into the regional field.
The layoff didn’t hamper the Bears this season.
“We kept going about our business,” said Jake Garella, an Edwardsville product playing with Post 199/126 for the first time. “We practiced every day leading up to this tournament and we knew it was a big tournament. We didn’t come thinking it wasn’t special; it really was. I think we all came in with the same mentality of going out there and competing as hard as we can with every pitch and every at-bat. I was really proud of our guys with how we competed and came out without having those games leading up to this tournament.”
Metro East burst onto the regional scene by thumping Pickerington, Ohio, 13-1 in seven innings. The Bears followed with a 7-5 win over Beloit, Wis., before losing 12-9 to Rockport, Ind., for their first loss. They rebounded with an 11-7 win over Bay City, Mich., to get to the final day of the tournament. Unfortunately, they ran into Rockport again in the finals.
Post 199/126 pushed the eventual regional champs to the brink, but lost 4-3 in 11 innings. Rockport went 5-0 in the tournament and opened play at the Legion World Series on Thursday.
“We all had the same goal; we all wanted to win,” Drake Hampton said. “We came in hot and turned it on at the right time and it was only a matter of time before we figured it out, and I thought we did. Rockport was a hell of a team and they played their best and so did we.”
An Alton High grad, Drake Hampton just completed his freshman season at Lewis and Clark Community College. He was a key member of the 2015 team and admitted both runs were special, but it was a bummer to come up just short on both occasions.
“It’s really something to be proud of and there’s nothing more than I wanted to do than go to a World Series,” Hampton said. “All these guys and the ones on the team last year, they’re all like brothers to me. I just can’t ask for anything better.”
Bears is an acronym for Bethalto, Edwardsville, Alton and Roxana, the communities comprising the roster. Bunker Hill’s Storm Coffman and Gillespie’s Tate Wargo were also members of the 2016 squad.
The rest of the team consisted of Bethalto’s (Civic Memorial) Brandon Hampton, Roxana’s Chance Foss and numerous Alton and Edwardsville players. Cole Cimarolli, Collin Clayton, Garella, Mitchell Krebs, Tyler Stamer, Cole Hansel, Maverick McSparin and Jordan Yenne are all EHS products. The Redbirds were represented by Drake Hampton, Steven Pattan, Jacob St. Peters, Devin Colley and Jacob Kanallakan.
The hodgepodge of different backgrounds made no difference.
“We all have so much fun together, it doesn’t matter where we are, who we are, or where we’re from, we all just come together as one,” Drake Hampton said. “That’s part of being a team and practicing and playing together every day. We all seem to mesh as one.”
Manager Ken Schaake raved about their character.
“This was a group that always had each other’s backs,” Schaake said. “It didn’t matter who it was, they were there to pick them up.
“Our kids battled back and I think it’s a shame. I think they’re a great group of kids. They’re polite, very respectful of their coaches. I’ve never had a personality problem with them all year long. For them to come this close and fall just a little bit short is really tough for me to take.”
He added, “There wasn’t a weak link out there.”
Mostly, the Bears understood the prestige of being the host of the Great Lakes Regional. Schaake coached the 1998 Edwardsville Post 199 team through the regional on the way to a World Series championship and then took the 2013 Post 199 squad to Terre Haute, Ind., where they were a win short of advancing.
There’s something extra special about being the host, though.
“It’s a big difference in the fact that our kids get to stay home,” Schaake said. “It sounds like an easy thing. Everybody says, ‘Let’s go to a hotel.’ But that’s a tough thing because then you have the coaches looking at you, you’re looking over your shoulder and you’re under a microscope the whole time. For them to be relaxed playing at home and having their families be able to watch them play, this is just a super experience.”
Of course the Bears would like to be at the World Series right now, but they proved they belonged at the regional this season.
“I think what we can take away from this tournament is we may not have earned our spot with a state championship, but we were here and we were good enough to be here,” Garella said. “We proved that and we showed that throughout this entire week, and I was proud of our guys from that standpoint.”
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