ALTON – Nick Paulda has been waiting all season for this week of baseball. So has teammate Chance Foss. And that goes for the rest of Metro East Bears.
They are playing host to the power-packed American Senior Legion Great Lakes Regional at Hopkins Field in Moore Park. Six state champions are included in the talented eight-team field that sports a composite 225-58 record. The tournament starts Wednesday and concludes Sunday.
At stake is a berth in next week's Legion World Series at Shelby, N.C.
The 27-8 Bears can’t wait to begin the regional. They'll battle 20-1 Rockport, the Indiana state champion, at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Metro East finished second to Elgin at last week’s Illinois Legion finals in Chicagoland.
“It’s definitely going to be a fun experience and what makes it better is having it here,” said Paulda, the Bears’ starting catcher, said of the regional. “We competed in the state tournament and I think we will come in here with a lot of confidence.”
Foss, an infielder, agreed. “It’s an honor to be here and we are going to see some tough competition, but we deserve to be here. We feel that we can play with anybody in the regional.”
A tournament banquet at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday night in the Spencer T. Olin Community Golf Course banquet center ignites the regional festivities. Mike Girsch, assistant general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, is the featured speaker for the pre-tourney fete. Members of the 1998 Edwardsville Post 199 national championship team, including World Series MVP Chad Opel, are expected to attend.
Then it’s on to baseball Wednesday. The first-day pairings are:
Game 1: Midland, Mich, 41-6, vs. Paducah, Ky., 18-10, at 10 a.m.;
Game 2: Madison, Wis., 21-7 vs. Troy, Ohio, 36-13, at 1 p.m.
Game 3: Elgin, 34-1-1 vs. Plover, Wis., 28-12, at 5 p.m.
Game 4: Metro East, 27-8, vs. Rockport, 20-1, at 8 p.m.
Opening ceremonies are slated between the second and third games, so Game 3 probably will start at 5 p.m. instead of 4 p.m. If the Bears win their opener, they will play the Madison-Troy winner at 7 p.m. Thursday.
“It’s all about pitching and defense at this point,” said Ken Schaake, manager of the Post 199/Post 126 Bears. “You can’t afford to let your pitching and defense let you down.”
He likely will go with Edwardsville’s Aaron Jackson on the mound in Metro East’s opener, though Ben Cusac and Maverick McSparin are also possibilities. All games are scheduled for nine innings.
“It’s great to be at our home field because we have been playing here all year,” Paulda said. “This regional might be a once in a lifetime thing for us. I know that I had never played in a state tournament until last week.”
The Bears lost their state opener to Mattoon at Carol Stream, then fought their way through the losers bracket. They won three in succession and reached the championship game before bowing to Elgin, which went unbeaten at state.
“What the kids did at state speaks highly of them,” Schaake said. “They could have gone two-and-out there after losing the first game. But they didn’t do that. They showed a lot of character. I was really proud of the way they came back.”
General manager Dennis Sharp also lauded the team’s spirited approach.
“It’s a quality team, from top to bottom,” he said. “Our kids are fierce competitors.”
He expects to see more of that tenacity and toughness this week. The Great Lakes Regional is the most prominent Legion event to come to Alton since Moore Park welcomed the 2000 World Series. That year, Danville, Calif., won it and Paducah took second.