By Richard Walker
Idaho Falls, Idaho, Post 56 knows it will be the hunted in the 2021 American Legion World Series (ALWS) since it is the defending ALWS champion.
But Post 56 Bandits coach Ryan Alexander figures few even remember much about the 2019 title. He thinks that includes his own players and the other seven teams in the 2021 ALWS field.
“You know what, I think most of these teams don't know who we are or who won it in '19," said Alexander, whose team became the first Idaho ALWS champion in 2019 when it defeated Fargo, N.D., Post 2 by a 5-3 score in the title game. “So we're going to try to come in as the underdog and see if we can win it again.”
Alexander has a point in that only one Bandits player returns from the 2019 team and few players on other teams even played in 2019.
Despite losing two other potential returnees whose college coaches pushed them to play summer collegiate leagues, Idaho Falls appears to be peaking at the right time.
“We just took this group and picked some solid kids and really hard workers," Alexander said. "It's been a process. It's taken a little bit of time but they've bought in and played for each other. And it's been a lot of fun."
Alexander and his coaching staff, that includes 2019 player Bruer Webster, have prodded the team to do something the title team from two years ago didn't do.
"We went 5-0 in the state tournament and 5-0 in the regional tournament," Alexander said. "Before the regional, I challenged these kids. I said, 'Let's go do something that they didn't, which was to go undefeated in the post season.’
"Right now, we're pitching well; I think we've got a 1.10 ERA. And some guys are really hitting the ball well. So I think we're hitting our stride. It's been a fun ride so far."
Happy to be back
Dan Cronkright has been a part of the Midland Berryhill, Mich., Post 165 team for more than 20 years. And Midland's seventh trip to Shelby for the ALWS has become a bit of a rite of passage within the program, even as Post 165's 2009 championship came in Fargo, N.D.
"It's always enjoyable to be here," Cronkright said. "It's a first class tournament. They treat us like kings. Our kids got a good taste of it in '08. And the kids now kind of pass down the tradition of saying, 'Man, you've got to go back to Shelby! That's the best time there is’.”
Midland's seventh appearance is the most in Shelby ALWS history. And Post 165 is making its 10th all-time ALWS appearance, the first coming in 1990.
The last time McKinley Holland was in the ALWS, he was an assistant coach for longtime Tupelo, Miss., Post 49 head coach Kirk Pressley.
That year, in 2011, Tupelo had eventual major league All-Star Brandon Woodruff on its roster and lost a heartbreaking 5-4, 13-inning championship game to Eden Prairie, Minn.
Holland says the current Tupelo players are aware of that history and may even infrequently bump into Woodruff, the Milwaukee Brewers' pitcher who still spends his offseason in the area.
"Brandon still spends his offseason back home and lives near Tupelo," Holland said. "The players know that we came here 10 years ago and lost in the national championship in the 13th inning. So we talk about it and think about it often."
Beverly, Mass., Post 331 had never won a state title, regional title or appeared in an ALWS when the season began.
But after the way its team performed last summer in independent baseball, Beverly manager Michael Levine said he was confident his group could have a great season this summer.
"Last year, we had a season but not a Legion season," Levine said. "And these players were all 18 years old. I talked to them in August and said, 'You're all age eligible to come back. Do you want to?' They said yes. I checked with them again in January and they said yes again.
"They lost their high school season last year but they're all friends and they all wanted to play together one more time."
That camaraderie resulted in a record-setting season that included unbeaten records in Massachusetts district and state tournament competition and a 4-1 mark in the Northeast Regional played in Shrewsbury, Mass.
Thirty has been a magical number for Ridge, Md., St. Mary's Post 255 this summer, as in the team's 30th season of Legion baseball.
It's resulted in a first state title, first regional title and first ALWS appearance.
Manager Tyler Kimmey says the small Southern Maryland towns that support the four high schools that produce St. Mary's players have rallied around Post 255's title run.
"It's exciting for me and (head coach) Steve Zumpano and all of our coaches," said Kimmey, who is in his 15th season with the program. "But also for the entire community. We're a rural county in Southern Maryland and everybody's been rooting for us.
"All last week, the (American Legion) post would turn the televisions off and turn up the radio broadcast to see how we were doing."
St. Mary's rewarded its fans with five straight Mid-Atlantic Regional victories, including walkoff wins in the bottom of the seventh inning of two wins.
Hot-hitting Dubuque County
Ever since trailing 3-0 after two innings in the Mid-South Regional in Hastings, Neb., on Aug. 4, Dubuque County Post 137 has been an offensive surge with 55 hits and 37 runs leading to five straight victories.
"We've had some decent pitching but we've hit the ball really well," coach Ronnie Kramer said. "And we've got all new kids. We didn't have anybody from two years ago so we didn't really know what to expect. We've kind of shot from the hip."
Kramer and assistant coach Jeff Nadermann are the only members of the Post 137 team that were around in 2018 when Dubuque County tied for fifth in the ALWS with a 1-2 record.
"It was an amazing experience last time," Kramer said. "It's exciting to know what these kids are getting ready to go through."
Rags to riches story
Fargo, N.D., Post 400 coach Jeff Fiechtner has spent many years involved in that city's Legion Baseball programs.
After Post 2 made the ALWS championship game two years ago, seven-year-old Post 400 is making its first ALWS journey this season.
It's given Fiechtner a chance to reflect on Post 400's humble beginnings.
"Post 400 started seven years ago because we had large numbers in Fargo and kids got cut," Fiechtner said. "And you can see what happened and now we have two teams playing. It's kind of a neat thing. It's good for our community. It shows that baseball is played pretty well in our city."
It wasn't always that way for Post 400 as Feichtner recalled.
"Three years ago, this team won one game," he said of a team that included six current team members. "Three games ago, this team lost a game 32-1. So we've had a lot of growth. This group took their lumps when they first started but they've worked and gotten better and better."
Shelby fan favorites?
Honolulu, Hawaii, Team Central is a first-time ALWS participant. But longtime Hawaiian Legion Baseball coach Oly Gante expects his team to again be a fan favorite in Shelby based on the reaction his Waipahu, Hawaii, teams received on their 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015 ALWS appearances.
"To see the community come out like they do here makes us feel good," Gante said of Shelby. "We just don't have that kind of crowd back home. And you can't get tired of it. We made a lot of friends here and it's so nice to see everybody. Everybody is so welcoming. I've always told these kids that if you get to the World Series, you're going to love it."
Gante's new team survived four one-run games in the Hawaii state tournament, then won five regional games by a combined margin of eight runs.
"We didn't know what was going to happen when the year started," Gante said. "We're just happy to be here."
Here's a look at the 2021 American Legion World Series schedule and the teams who will play in it this season:
Stars - Central Plains (Fargo, N.D.), Mid-Atlantic (Ridge St. Mary's, Md.), Southeast (Tupelo, Miss.), Western (Honolulu, Hawaii)
Stripes - Great Lakes (Midland Berryhill, Mich.), Mid-South (Dubuque County, Iowa), Northeast (Beverly, Mass.), Northwest (Idaho Falls, Idaho)
Thursday Aug. 12
Central Plains vs. Western, 10 a.m.
Mid-South vs. Northeast, 1 p.m.
Great Lakes vs. Northwest, 4 p.m.
Southeast vs. Mid-Atlantic, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 13
Central Plains vs. Southeast, 4 p.m.
Mid-Atlantic vs. Western, 7 p.m.
Idle - Great Lakes, Mid-South, Northeast, Northwest
Saturday, Aug. 14
Mid-South vs. Northwest, 1 p.m.
Great Lakes vs. Northeast, 4 p.m.
Southeast vs. Western, 7:30 p.m.
Idle - Central Plains, Mid-Atlantic
Sunday, Aug. 15
Mid-South vs. Great Lakes, 1 p.m.
Mid-Atlantic vs. Central Plains, 4 p.m.
Northeast vs. Northwest, 7:30 p.m.
Idle - Southeast, Western
Monday, Aug. 16 - semifinals
Stars No. 1 vs. Stripes No. 2, 4 p.m.
Stripes No. 1 vs. Stars No. 2, 7 p.m.
Tuesday, Aug. 17
Championship game, 6:30 p.m.