Legion 3rd at top tourney
Marion’s resurgent American Legion baseball team ended its season last week, finishing third against top regional 17-and-younger teams at the Kansas Grand Slam wooden-bat tournament in Salina.
Marion defeated teams from Wichita and Clay Center but lost to teams from Topeka and Omaha (twice).
“These teams were from bigger, more aggressive schools,” coach Tyler Mermis said. “They were pretty salty.”
The Omaha team, from Millard North High School, had played 47 games, with multiple practices in between, before facing Marion for the first time Thursday.
Marion’s team had played in just 16 games, and while Mermis and fellow coaches had started off with two or three practices a week, demands from players’ summer jobs and other activities limited the team to just one or two practices weekly.
“Typically it was kind of hard to get all the kids to practice,” Mermis said. “We might have five or six for batting practice or fielding. Some players had to work until 3 or 4, then come out and play.”
Marion’s team was drawn from Marion High School, enrollment around 190. Millard North’s came from a school of nearly 2,600 students, one of the largest in Nebraska.
Despite losing 11-3 Thursday and 12-4 in a rematch Saturday, Marion’s players impressed the Millard North coach enough to earn an invitation to Omaha’s Tournament of Champions during the College World Series next summer, Mermis said.
Fresh to start the Salina tournament on the Fourth, Marion cruised to a 20-3 victory over the Wichita Aviators before falling, 13-8, to the Topeka Scrappers in a second game of a double header.
Marion was competitive against Millard North for a time in two teams’ first matchup Thursday.
A two-run bottom of the third got Marion to within two of the more experienced Nebraska team, which had jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first on three singles, two wild pitches, and a passed ball.
But Millard North erupted for six runs in the top of the fourth and held on to put Marion away, 11-3.
Batting at the top of the order, center fielder Cole Srajer and shortstop Sam Zinn scored all of Marion’s runs.
Marion started the third with a walk to catcher Hunter Helmer on four pitches. Pinch runner Bryce Mermis was out at second on a fielder’s choice by Srajer, who advanced to second on a single by Zinn.
A single by right fielder Blaine Mermis loaded the bases, and Srajer and Zinn scored on a fielding error that allowed third baseman Luke Lanning to reach.
A walk on five pitches to first baseman Evann Heidebrecht again loaded the bases. But a strikeout by left fielder Chase Stringer and a fly out by second baseman Cooper Carpenter ended the inning.
Millard North came back with six runs in the top of the fourth, driving Marion starter Jaxton Tracy from the mound after he failed to retire six consecutive batters he faced.
Tracy ended the day giving up 10 runs, 7 earned, with 3 strikeouts, a walk, 4 wild pitches, and a hit batsman.
Zinn and Lanning collected Marion’s only RBIs. Zinn, Srajer, Blaine Mermis, and Stringer provided Marion’s five hits.
Against a more evenly matched opponent, Clay Center, of Friday, Marion rebounded for an 8-3 victory. Blaine Mermis scattered six hits in pitching a complete game with 12 strikeouts, 2 walks and 1 hit batsman.
Every player except Zinn and Lanning had at least one hit, and Carpenter led the way with 3 RBIs. Zinn and Heidebrecht collected two apiece.
Saturday’s rematch with Millard North was not unlike the teams’ first matchup, with the Nebraska team logging a 12-4 victory en route to winning the tournament championship.
Other teams in the tournament were from Salina and Winfield.
Although there was no team in Marion last year because of family commitments by the coaches, Legion ball has been making a comeback here since 2015 after a nearly 40-year absence.
One obstacle has been funding. Mermis said he raised a little more than $3,000 in donations this year to defray expenses to allow for a 19-game season, in which Marion went 10-9.
“If we would have practiced more, it would have benefited us,” he said, “but we were able to help players develop more for the next season of high school ball.”
An added benefit of competing against teams more powerful than those typically on high school schedules is that college scouts attended several of the games, including those last week in Salina, Mermis said.
Legion ball made its comeback in large part because of a bequest by the late Kevin Hoffer. The team got its name, the Hawks, because Hoffner was a Kansas Jayhawks fan, but former coach Jordan Metro, a Kansas State fan, didn’t want the team named after K-State’s rival. “Hawks” was the compromise choice.
This year’s team might have participated in an additional tournament this week, but Mermis decided not to schedule those games because he didn’t want to take players out of the high school’s summer football camp to compete.
“The new football coach is a friend of mine,” Mermis said. “I told him I didn’t want to do that to him, not in his first year.”