American Legion Baseball is a big deal in other parts of the country and could be again in San Diego County if recent growth continues in the post-pandemic landscape.
After a several decades’ absence in the San Diego region, American Legion Baseball returned in 2018 with 13 teams. The next year 22 teams took the field.
San Diego District 22, the local organizing body, went dark along with most youth baseball leagues in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But interest did not wane: District play resumed in 2021 with 28 teams, though three teams had to bow out of the original schedule due to the extension of the high school season, which officially wrapped up June 26 with the Southern California regional championships.
American Legion aspires to further baseball opportunities for high school age players during the summer while also providing an outlet for person fitness, leadership qualities and “just to have fun,” according to the organization. The league, which draws players in the 13-19 age group, provides district play. Post-season playoffs lead to a state championship, then a national championship tournament in Shelby, N.C.
Legion baseball, which serves as a low-cost alternative to travel ball, has sponsored posts in all 50 states and Canada. About 3,500 teams participate each year.
Notable alumni include Bob Feller, Ted Williams. Stan Musial. Roy Campanella. Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, Frank Robinson, Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Roger Maris and Phil Neikro, among many others.
Area 5/District 22 commissioner Peter-Rolf Ohnstad pointed out that 17 of the 25 teams that did participate in the league this summer had qualified for this year’s section playoffs, thus creating a quality pool of talent.
The Post 201 Lightning (Mount Miguel High School), Post 258 Phantoms (Valhalla High School), Post 303 Crusaders (Foothills Christian High School), Post 434 Vigilantes (Monte Vista High School), Post 460-SONS Trojans (Patrick Henry High School) and the Sea Knights (Santana High School) represented East County in district play this summer.
Teams were placed in the Marine Division and Navy Division from computation of standings. League play started June 7 and ended July 6.
The Trojans entered this season as two-time district champions and cruised to a perfect 8-0 regular season record by regularly pounding teams on the diamond. Post 258 completed regular season play with a 98-18 scoring differential.
The Trojans didn’t let up in the playoffs, though the team had to fight back in all four of its games to post come-from-behind victories.
There were other obstacles to overcome. Because the San Diego Unified School District would not let American Legion teams use their school facilities, the Trojans had to play all their scheduled games on the road.
The team’s reward — and crowning achievement — was an undefeated 12-0 season following Sunday’s 9-2 win over Post 146/760 in this year’s championship playoff game at the University of San Diego’s Fowler Field.
The next stop for the Trojans is the state championship tournament July 24-27 in Clovis.
“We are looking forward to the state tournament,” head coach Sheldon Watkins said. “Each year we have gone, it’s been a great experience. We have a much younger team this time, so it will be a great opportunity for them.”
This year’s Area 5 playoffs took place July 15-18 with an eight-team double-elimination bracket. Seven teams participated from District 22 with Post 229 from San Bernardino also included.
All games took place at USD.
Qualifiers included Post 258 Phantoms (Valhalla), Post 146/760 Vipers (Oceanside), Post 282 Cobras (Mission Bay), Post 820 Seals (Coronado), Post 149 Warthogs (Escondido), Post 492 Panthers (Hoover), Post 460 SONS Trojans (Patrick Henry) and Post 229 High Desert Devils (Adelanto).
In opening round games on July 15, the Trojans defeated the Panthers, 5-3; the Vipers shut out the Phantoms, 13-0, the Cobras defeated the Seals, 11-1 and the Warthogs defeated Post 229, 4-1.
In winners bracket games on July 16, the Trojans edged the Warthogs, 5-3, while Vipers edged the Cobras, 4-1.
In losers bracket games on July 16, the Phantoms eliminated the Seals, 10-8, while the Panthers shut out Post 229, 3-0.
In the winners bracket final on July 17, the Trojans downed the Vipers, 7-3.
In losers bracket games on July 17, the Phantoms remained in contention with a 4-3 win over the Warthogs while the Cobras topped the Panthers, 9-6.
That left the Phantoms and Cobras to duel it out in the losers bracket semifinal later that day, with the Cobras eliminating the Phantoms, 6-5, to advance to the losers bracket final the next day against the Vipers.
The Vipers won the opening game on July 18 by a score of 4-2 to eliminate the Cobras and get a second shot against the Trojans.
The Trojans claimed their history-making three-peat in in the championship game on July 18 but it took some work to accomplish.
The Vipers led 2-0 early before the Trojans put one run across in the bottom of the first inning before adding another run in the second inning to tie the score. The Trojans scored the final seven runs in the game.
Nolan Kluge and Talin Gardini both had two hits for the Trojans while Zach Morales and Brady Hull both had two RBI. Travis Van Dyke, an incoming junior at Patrick Henry, pitched a full seven innings with 19 first-pitch strikes and eight strikeouts overall while scattering five hits.
The Vipers committed four errors in the title game loss.
Gandini had two of the Trojans’ eight hits in the opening-round win over the Panthers, who led by scores of 1-0 and 3-2 in the game. The Panthers scored the first run in the game before the Trojans tacked on single runs in the third, fourth and fifth inning before capping the win with two runs in the sixth inning.
Gardini and Drew Davis both recorded four strikeouts on the mound while sharing pitching duties in the game.
The Vipers built an early 3-0 lead in the first playoff meeting with the Trojans before Post 460 tied the game, 3-3, with a three-run rally in the fourth inning and produced the winning runs with a four-run rally in the sixth inning.
Noah Filson drove in three runs while Morales had two RBI in the win over the Vipers while Davis pitched a complete game with 19 first-pitch strikes while scattering eight hits.
The Trojans’ lineup also included Eddie Gomez (shortstop), Ryan Ellis (pitcher), Jack Giordano (catcher), Bryce Andersen (left field), Jackson Goffar (third base), Dominic Benami (center field), Ryan Ruch (right field), Jared Wangler (shortstop), Colin Miller (second base), Jonah Stepner (center field) and Dylan Dyresen (pitcher), Garrett Mellinger (pitcher) and Connor Rice (left field).
Ellis earned the Eastern League Player of the Year award as a junior for Patrick Henry (12-3 in league, 20-10 overall) during the high school season while Dyresen, a junior, and Max Shabestari, a senior, both earned first team all-league recognition. Freshman Jeremiah Vargas, sophomore Brady Hull and senior Andrew Gauna all were named second team all-league while honorable mention awards went to Eddie Gomez (freshman), Gardini (freshman) and Kluge (junior).
The Eastern League champion Patriots received the fifth seed in the Division II CIF playoffs but were upset, 2-1, in the play-in round by the 12th-seeded Vista Panthers.
The Phantoms, playing under manager Ryan Wheeler, finished regular season play 9-1 and completed the playoffs 2-2 to post an overall 11-3 summer season.
After being shut out, 13-0, by the Vipers in the opening playoff game, the Phantoms rebounded with a pair of wins to remain in championship contention. The Phantoms tamed the Seals by a score of 10-8 in a game that featured a combined 26 hits and 18 runs before scoring a dramatic 4-3 win over the Warthogs in eighth innings.
Nate Molton had three hits for Post 258 against the Seals while David Gordon drove in three runs. Riley Hughes had four hits and two RBI against the Warthogs.
Hughes pitched 5.1 innings against the Seals with six strikeouts while Gordon (six innings) and Tanner Lough (two innings) combined to post eight strikeouts (seven by Gordon) in the extra-inning victory against the Warthogs.
The Phantoms never led in their final playoff game against Post 282. The Cobras led, 6-0, after two innings before Post 258 made it interesting with five runs in the top of the fourth inning. Neither team scored another run and the score ended that way as an otherwise standout season ended for the Phantoms.
Kuba Polak and Julian Jerjees both had two hits in the season finale while Hughes had two RBI. Moulton pitched 4.1 innings with eight first-pitch strikes.
Besides District 66 Little League and District 41 Little League, District 33 Little League also serves parts of East County.
San Carlos Little League won this year’s District 33 12U all-stars championship by downing Rolando Little League, 15-4, July 15 at the La Mesa National Little League fields.
San Carlos advanced to compete in the California Section 6 tournament July 17-22 in Vista alongside 4S Ranch (District 31), Peninsula (District 32) and Oceanside Valley (District 70).