There’s a new player on the area American Legion baseball scene this summer and it could be a major one.
Say hello to the Metro East Bears, though you probably already know them. The first-year Bears are a composite of the Alton, Edwardsville and Bethalto Legion programs. They also include prep players from Marquette Catholic, Roxana and Brussels.
“It’s something new and I think it’s the wave of the future,” said Bears’ general manager Dennis Sharp, formerly the GM for Alton Post 126 team. “We’re trying to be more competitive for the postseason playoffs and it’s like a select-team style of baseball.”
Ex-Edwardsville manage Ken Schaake will guide the team and one-time Bethalto manager Nick Smith will serve as a coach. Steve Haug and Tim Stunkel also are also assisting Schaake. The Bears are scheduled to begin the season with a District 22 home game at 6 p.m. Thursday against Fairview Heights.
The district has been revamped, too. No longer are there North and South divisions. The one-division league includes Troy, Highland, Collinsville, Fairview Heights, Belleville, Smithton and the Bears. Each team will play 12 district games in a home-and-home format.
Sharp, Schaake and Smith faced a potential numbers problem this summer at Alton, Edwardsville and Bethalto, respectively. Thus, combining forces seemed the logical solution, Sharp said.
“We (Alton) lost some potential kids, so we would have been very young this season,” Sharp said. “And there was a lack of overall numbers for us, Bethalto and Edwardsville. We talked about it and decided it would be an advantage to put the programs together.
“So we decided to pull the trigger and go ahead and do it.”
It could be a formidable group. Edwardsville won the Illinois Legion championship last year and advanced to the Great Lakes Regional in Terre Haute, Ind. Drew Curtis is the top returnee from Post 199.
Other players in the mix are: Dalton Archer, Jordan Briggs, Mason and Riley Caselton, Casey Fair, Tommy Flack, Carter Hayden, Connor Melton, Nick Paulda, Austin Stilts, Jacob Skrabacz, Jacob Trueb, Levi Wallace and Jacob Wood.
“We wanted a community program and now we have a bigger community base,” Sharp said.
He’s already looking to the future. Alton is making a big for the Great Lakes Regional in 2015 and 2016. It’ll be back in Terre Haute this season.
With just a dozen district games, the Bears will play in several tournaments and add to their non-league card. They are set to participate in a tourney at Festus, Mo., this weekend. There’s one on the docket soon at Washington, Mo., and the Bears will play host to the Firecracker Tournament next month.
The postseason district tournament is slated for the site of the league champion. The Fifth Division tourney is at New Baden before the state finals roll around at Arlington Heights in Chicagoland.
“We combined Alton with Bethalto in 2007 and were successful and we did the same thing with Edwardsville in 2009 and were successful,” Sharp said.
He added, “Most of the coaches in the league understand what we were doing. They could be in a similar situation and have to do the same thing we’ve done.”
Alton will maintain its only Junior Legion team, as will Bethalto and Roxana. East Alton-Wood River Juniors are teaming with Roxana.
The Alton Juniors, managed by Sharp, are enjoying a 7-2 getaway and are 2-0 in District 22 competition. Steven Nguyen of Alton pitched a no-hitter in a 7-0 win over Bethalto earlier in the week.