Listen to those Metro East Bears. They are poised to go on the prowl again, growl louder and put their paw prints all over another successful summer season.
The local American Senior Legion team, which posted a 31-10 record and reached the final of the Great Lakes Regional in Alton last season, is courting higher stakes in 2016. Metro East went 24-8 in 2014, its inaugural season.
“We want to get to the World Series,” said infielder Drake Hampton, an Alton High product. “We want to have fun and play well, but our goal is to get on the plane and go to the nationals.”
Thus, the third-year Bears have their sights set on reaching the 89th Legion World Series, scheduled for Aug. 11-15 in Shelby, N.C.
Don’t dismiss their plans for a happy flight.
They came within one game of doing that in 2015 when the Bears finished second to Midland, Mich., in the Great Lakes Regional at Moore Park in Alton. Midland advanced to North Carolina, where Chapin-Newberry, S.C., defeated New Orleans, 9-2 in the championship game.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to go to the World Series, said Post 126/199 manager Ken Schaake, who guided Edwardsville to the 1998 championship in Las Vegas. “It’s a tremendous experience and I’m hoping to take another team there and experience it.”
So far, so good. The Bears, who opened their season June 7 with a 6-3 home win over Festus, Mo., took a 5-1 record into this week. They were scheduled to entertain Highland on Tuesday in their District 22 opener. This weekend, the Bears are primed to play in a tourney at Festus, Mo. Their next home game is Tuesday, June 21, against Festus in an 8 p.m. affair on SIUE’s Roy E. Lee Field.
The team features players from Alton, Civic Memorial, Roxana, Edwardsville, Bunker Hill, Gillespie and Mount Olive high schools.
“We are a bunch of guys that have a lot of talent and we want to have a lot of fun,” said pitcher Jacob St. Peters, a recent AHS graduate.
Drake Hampton added, “We have a lot of talent and we are like a family.”
The family includes plenty of new faces, including pitcher-outfielder Brandon Hampton, a senior at Civic Memorial High.
“Last year, I played for the Bethalto SLABA team, but this summer I wanted to play for this team,” he said of the Bears. “It’s a pretty talented team that plays a competitive schedule and I just want to contribute, whether I’m pitching or playing in the outfield.”
Schaake noted, “We have pitching depth, a lot of versatility and I think we are a little quicker than we were last season. Our pitching staff has four people that were No. 1 starters for their high school teams in the spring.”
Jake Garella did that at Edwardsville, Storm Coffman filled that role at Bunker Hill, while Hampton and St. Peters also were aces.
“Our attitude is good and the kids are enthusiastic,” Schaake said. “If we play consistently and keep improving we will be all right. Last year was definitely an improvement over the first year.”
Infielder/outfielder Collin Clayton, a key performer for the 29-8 Edwardsville High team the past spring, embraced the opportunity to play for the Bears, also second in last year’s state tournament.
“I was with the St. Louis Pirates last season, but it’s more of a laid-back approach here even though everybody wants to win,” Clayton said. “We have a lot of good players and I’ve known Ken Schaake for a while. He’s a great guy.”
Roxana’s Chance Foss, Alton’s Devin Colley, Jacob Kanallakan, Steven Nguyen and Steven Pattan, Mount Olive’s Andrew Jones, Gillespie’s Tate Wargo, plus Edwardsville’s Cole Cimarolli, Anthony Kindle, Joe Wallace, Cole Hansel, Maverick McSparin and Tyler Stamer add their talents to the loaded Bears.
“The players seem to get along really well with each other even if we have kids from different schools,” Schaake said.
Metro East will again welcome the Great Lakes Regional, though this time it’s set for SIUE on Aug. 3-7. Since the Bears are playing host to the regional, they will have an automatic berth in it.
The state tournament runs July 27-29 at Ken Schell Field in Jerseyville. That’ll follow the Fifth Division Tournament a week earlier in West Frankfort. During the regular season, the Bears will play their home games at SIUE, the new Alton High field and one game — July 7 — at Hoppe Park in Edwardsville.
“This team might have a little less varsity experience than last year’s team, but it’s still a good group of kids,” Schaake said. “It’s just a matter of getting out on the field and getting more experience.”
The Bears are also part of the 15-team Firecracker Tournament, set to explode July 2-4 at three sites: Jerseyville, Belleville and Fairview Heights. The finals are slated for July 4 in Jerseyville.
Belleville, Highland and Metro East comprise the District 22 lineup, which lost Fairview Heights this season when it couldn’t field a team. East St. Louis is playing strictly a Junior Legion schedule this summer.
Steve Haug, Nick Smith and Tim Stunkel are serving as assistant coaches. Dennis Sharp is the Bears’ general manager and also the manager of the Junior Legion team.
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