MATTOON — With most American Legion baseball teams, one of the most difficult aspects of putting together a consistent winning club comes down to a task that seems simple but not always is … creating chemistry.
Many Legion clubs have players come from all over the area to form the squad, and the Rantoul Post 287 Senior Legion team is no different.
In fact, this year’s version is the most spread-out group manager Garry Smith has ever coached.
Rantoul, Paxton, Urbana, Gibson City, Danville, Hoopeston, Champaign and Fisher, and perhaps another school or two Smith forgot to mention, are all home to players who formulate the Post 287 team.
With a such vast number of schools, which means different friendships, backgrounds and unfamiliarity with each other, it creates a unique atmosphere akin to an MLB All-Star game … albeit on a much lower level and for a full season as opposed to a one-game exhibition.
"That’s a real good point because we’ve got more kids on this team from different high schools since I’ve been here," Smith said. "I think (the diversity) probably does come into play, and we’ve been with it a month now, and the guys seem like their camaraderie’s good. They pick each other up, and from that standpoint it’s all been good.
"It’s the most diversified group we’ve ever had. I think the kids are starting to get to know each other better, and I think it helped."
The "it" Smith refers to is a two-day, three-game tournament in Trenton two weeks ago in which the club went 1-2, which included winning a game by one run and losing another game by the same margin. More intriguing and more crucial than the results, however, was what several teammates did following their final game of the tournament on June 16.
"It was a late night, and a lot of us drove to Trenton and didn’t want to drive back. I was one of them. I didn’t want to drive back," said Brendan Yocius, one of several Post 287 players who did not want to make the 170-plus-mile return trip from down south. "The Trenton tournament worked out really well for us. We had seven or eight guys stay after and talk to each other. We stayed at the hotel together, we hung out in one room and played ("MLB: The Show") all night. Had a good time. It takes a little bit to gel, but when we do, we’re going to be a great ball team."
"We stayed behind," Smith said. "They said they were tired and wanted to bond, so Larry (Smith) and I stayed behind to help. And that’s why we use that trip. We didn’t play extremely well over there, but (the Firecracker) tournament I thought we played well. We should’ve won three or four more games (this season) that we gave away, but that’s baseball. We’re coming on. We’re getting better."
Post 287 finished Mattoon’s 33rd annual Firecracker Classic with a 3-2 record, including a 2-0 showing on Sunday, which ended in figurative fireworks via Yocius’ walk-off RBI single for a 7-6 victory over Cumberland County in the consolation championship game. The above-.500 finish at the tournament raised Rantoul’s record to 7-9 this summer — significantly better than the 3-13 record the team had through 16 games in 2017, which included an 0-8 start on the way to a 9-22 finish.
Despite the different setting of summer travel ball, the players have begun to gel more and more as the season continues. And some of that can be attributed to the fact that several players from the 2017 squad are back for more in 2018 (Yocius, Joe Stilger, J.T. Jones, Dan Wachtel, Eli Place, Luke Jones, Adam Crites, Collin Klein and Dylan Baker).
"It’s a little different in high school because you’re with everyone every day, and you practice with them every day," Yocius said. "We don’t practice every day, so it takes a little bit."
Another unique aspect of a summer travel ball team like Post 287 is the need for players to play out of position. For instance, Rantoul grad and Kankakee Community College signee Luke Jones, who played second base for two seasons before garnering The News-Gazette First-Team All-Area honors as a senior catcher in the spring, is now roaming center field.
"Overall, the attitude and effort were good. I think guys are finally starting to see how they fit in," Smith said.
"We’re coming together more as a team and getting more comfortable with each other," said Yocius, who is in his fifth year playing Legion ball and second straight season as a Post 287 Senior Legion member. "We’ve got people from all over the place. I’m from Danville, our shortstop’s from Urbana, we’ve got a couple kids from Rantoul and a couple kids from Gibson City. Not everyone’s played with each other that many times.
"A lot of us are getting along. Some of us played with each other last year, and we’ve got some new kids. But we’re all gelling well together."
Contact Zack Carpenter at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.