Multiple coaches of teams competing in this week’s Region 3A American Legion baseball tournament are whistling new tunes when talking about their postseason prospects.
In years past, it has often been an elementary process to identify the two squads likely to advance to the state tournament, which will be held next week in Yankton.
This summer? Not so much.
For the most part, anyway.
“Four of the five teams are, I think, awfully even. As even as you can get, really,” outgoing Rapid City Post 320 head coach Jim Brandt said. “It really will come down to who can come out and get the job done when it counts.”
But even if there’s doubt surrounding whether Tanner Chleborad’s pinched ulnar nerve has healed enough to let him pitch in this first portion of the postseason, there’s little questioning that Rapid City Post 22 is again the regional favorite.
Despite fielding a relatively inexperienced team by their standards, the Hardhats (40-18) come in with a double-digit win advantage over each of their regional counterparts. Post 22 head coach Dave Ploof is hopeful the usually tough regular-season competition he sets before his team will proves it worth when it matters most.
“The kids have really worked hard and have had a lot of regular-season success, and that’s really, really fun to see,” Ploof said. “We are a really young ballclub, but we’ve grown up. We won 40 games in the regular season.
“They’ve worked hard, but we’re still not where we want to be. We’re always going to work to get better.”
Post 22 has won seven of the past 11 state Legion titles, and its road to a third consecutive crown begins at home, as Fitzgerald Stadium plays host to the nine-inning, double-elimination tournament, which begins Wednesday.
Ploof and the Post 22 coaching staff were preparing for the potential loss of Chleborad’s stingy 0.82 ERA this past weekend, as they gave eight different pitchers some work in the team’s four wins at the Dr. James “Pev” Evans Tournament.
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The tournament was also played at Post 22’s stomping grounds. Spearfish Post 164 (28-26) compiled a 3-1 record over the weekend in Rapid City, and coach Matt Kemp is hopeful playing four extra games at the regional site will get his players comfortable in their surroundings.
“I think it helps,” Kemp said of familiarizing oneself with the playing surface. “Not all infields roll the same, and not all outfields take the same hops. When you’re just coming out with four games on the field where you’re playing your biggest of the year, it helps, especially since Pierre, 320 and Sturgis don’t have as many games on it as we have.”
Spearfish opens its tournament at 2 p.m. against Pierre Post 8 (26-22), which beat Post 164 three times during the regular season. At 8 p.m., Post 22 will face the winner of Post 320 (23-19) and Sturgis Post 33 (21-18), who open the tournament at 11 a.m.
Sturgis coach Beau Garcia expressed some concern over his team’s defensive consistency heading into regionals, but he said he’s hopeful his experienced roster will be able to handle the big moments.
“We’re a pretty old team. We’ve got eight seniors,” he said. “Hopefully, it comes to them and they realize that a lot of them have been in state tournaments with basketball or wrestling. They can relate to that, and that will relax them.”
Garcia said a deep Sturgis run will likely need to be spearheaded by pitching, and Michael Baldwin has been at the forefront on the mound for the Titans throughout the spring and summer.
Similarly, Brandt said that Stars workhorse Kyle Gorsuch will need to be among the leaders for Post 320 to make a trip to state before the seventh-year coach hands the program over to Paul Pool.
“The hitting’s kind of leveled off for the kids, and that happens when you run into a string of good pitching,” Brandt said. “But defensively, we’re happy about the play, we really are. We’ve also been getting some nice performances across the board with our pitchers.”
Ploof said he has a couple of players fighting through hip issues and other small injuries, but he’s looking for another successful start to the playoffs by the time the tournament ends Friday night.
“Plenty of the kids will have the opportunities to show their wares,” he said.