The team opens tournament play against the Chillicothe Post 757 Colts at the V.A. Memorial Stadium in Chillicothe tonight. The game is an opportunity for Post 23 to advance to the state tournament, but it means much more than that.
After two years without even having a team, Post 23 is back - and winning.
Post 23 is 30-15 going into tournament play, but the success, and in fact the team's re-creation, didn't come right away.
Before the 2007 spring sports season, several high school baseball coaches had kicked around the idea of getting an American Legion team started again in order to give their players a chance to play summer baseball on a more competitive level. The problem, though, was finding a coach.
“Several area high school coaches called and said there was some interest in the kids wanting to play Post 23 baseball,” said general manager Tony Perkins, an officer at James Dickey Post 23. “We had a meeting at the post and as soon as we had a meeting, the post wanted (baseball) back. That's when I got ahold of Tom Bergan at Shawnee State and they said Jack Branon was interested.”
Perkins knew Branon from when Branon's son had played for Post 23 years ago.
Branon's most recent coaching job was the head coaching position for girls basketball at East. He had been the head baseball coach at Wheelersburg until he retired in 2001, but had not coached baseball as a head coach in the following six years.
“My son played college baseball, which is the real reason I got out of it because I wanted to watch him,” said Branon. “When he finished his college career, I was really interested in jumping back in.”
The coaches that had kicked around the idea of reforming a legion team, including Minford's Tim Martin, Wheelersburg's Michael Estep and Valley's Dean Schuler, approached Branon and he took the job.
The next step for Branon was scouting. Branon spent countless hours attending games for most every team in the county so he'd know what to look for come tryouts.
A lot of kids tried out for 19 roster spots over a two-day span and Branon said the team was picked by a committee of several people to ensure the players chosen were the best fit for the team. Branon also said that area high school coaches were instrumental in helping to evaluate talent.
“The high school coaches, they were unbelievably cooperative,” said Branon. “We scouted every team and coaches were honest in telling you who could play and who couldn't.”
Branon added that some players though, including the team's leading hitter Nick Kemper, who played JV and therefore wasn't scouted, made the team via a strong performance at the tryouts.
Branon also needed a place to play and the three coaches that approached him about coaching the team came through. The team practiced at Wheelersburg and Valley and played its home games at Minford. Martin, the Minford coach, even spent his time running the scoreboard at home games.
Finally, after running the final roster in the Daily Times, Post 23 was back.
Branon had a roster, but he didn't have a team - at least not yet.
Along with assistant coaches Bergan and Lance Davis, Branon had the task of turning a virtual all-star team of local high school players who had just finished a season in which they spent their time trying to beat each other, into teammates.
“It's really something we tried to do,” said Branon. “We told them when the team was picked, the first practice when we handed out the hats, ‘This says 23 on it. It doesn't say Minford or Northwest or any other school. Until the season is over, we're not from that school. You're on Post 23.' They've done a nice job of meshing together.”
Branon said after the final game of the regular season, he saw an image that showed him how well the team has come together.
“I saw leaving in the same car, Kylon Crabtree from Northwest, Justin Craft of Clay, and Randy Ratcliff of Green,” Branon added. “You develop a camaraderie that you really don't think about.”
Branon said that camaraderie developed on two important road trips, the first to Dayton and the second to Elkins, W.Va.
On the day of a doubleheader at the Hillbilly Hardball Classic tournament in Elkins, Post 23 suffered a demoralizing loss in its morning game.
“At a tournament at Elkins, W.Va. everyone came together as a team,” said Branon. “We had a bad game and talked about it a little bit and that night we played a very good team and just drilled them.”
That moment, according to Branon, was when Post 23 ceased to be a collection of different high school players and became a team.
Perkins said the kids on the team have represented Post 23 well.
“We're really pleased with not just the record, but the performance of the kids and how they've come together as part of the Post 23 family,” said Perkins.
Before the season started Post 23 held six practices and Branon said he didn't really know what to expect.
“We really didn't know what to expect and I talked with Tony (Perkins) down at the legion and said we don't know what to expect,” said Branon. “But going in, I always expect to win. If I'm going in, I want a winning program.”
And a winning program he has.
Bergan, a former minor league pitcher and former coach of Shawnee State University has worked with the pitchers to help Post 23 develop a dominant staff. Jared Farmer, Jordan Russell, Adam Wamsley, Shaun Cook and Dustin Cook have all turned in quality innings and so has Aaron Oesch who has been splitting time between Post 23 and football. Farmer will get the start tonight.
That staff will be tested tonight. Post 23 spilt its season series with Post 757 with each team winning on its home field. While the Colts are from Chillicothe, the V.A. is a neutral site as Post 757 has its own field.
The Colts have a solid pitching staff including Zach Kingsolver that will present a tough challenge. Branon also said the game is a chance for Post 23's players to get revenge on some of the kids who ended their high school seasons prematurely.
“The Chillicothe area beat a lot of local teams in the postseason and we've kind of presented that maybe as a challenge to some of our players,” said Branon. “We want to make Scioto County baseball as good as Ross County baseball.
“I think (to win) our pitching has got to be good,” Branon added. “Post 757 has some pitchers. We have to hit in the clutch a little bit better than we are right now and defensively, we can't give extra outs.”
Post 23 falls into American Legion's Seventh District and the winner of the district tournament goes onto state. There are eight teams in the double elimination tournament, half of which is being played in Hillsboro.
The team's regular season goal was to win 30 games which it achieved on the last day of the season on Thursday with a 6-2 win over the Chillicothe Blaze. It's postseason goal is just as lofty.
“Our goal is winning the tournament and we won't really be satisfied if we don't,” said Branon.
Getting to this point, according to Branon, required the help of a lot of people. Parents who drove their children all over the county and provided food for the team, high school coaches support and what Branon called “the best coaching staff you could have,” in Davis and Bergan have been invaluable to the team success.
Finally, Branon said the trio of Estep, Schuler and Martin, who provided fields, and the Minford community that provided support have the thanks of the team.
“The whole Minford community really accepted us as their team and gave us whole use of their fields,” he said. “A lot of the success we had goes to those high school coaches and the Minford community.”
Post 23 plays in the second of two games tonight, which will begin 20 minutes after the end of the first which starts at 4 p.m.
JOHN STEGEMAN can be reached at email@example.com.