Long-term plan pays off for Legion baseball team

By Steve Sell
July 28, 2014

As with any major accomplishment, it all started with a plan.

Six years ago, Tony Schmidt was part of a group that wanted to lay the groundwork for a baseball team that could achieve rarefied heights. As part of the McPherson Baseball Association, it was the flag bearer for future teams, the model blueprint if you will.

On Sunday, he saw all parts of the plan come together. The McPherson Under-17 American Legion baseball team, a core group that has stuck together through thick and thin, reached the pinnacle by defeating Andover 10-3 in the Class A American Legion State Baseball Tournament championship game in Leavenworth.

The team overcame the longest of odds. It opened tournament play with a disheartening 8-3 loss to Andover after having massaged a 3-1 lead through five innings. Some well-placed Andover hits and a couple of uncharacteristic mental lapses by a team that prides itself on execution led to its demise as Andover plated seven runs to snatch away the victory.

“We should have won that game,” Schmidt said repeatedly after it was over.

History dictated that McPherson’s hopes and dreams should have evaporated like dust in the wind. No Class A team in 33 years of the event had lost the first game and then charged back to win the championship.

It’s cliche, but Schmidt calmly told his team to take it one pitch, one out, one inning and one game at a time. He knew his team had unmatched pitching. He had to masterfully cobble together a plan to maximize the reservoir of arms available to him. One of the strengths of his team is that nearly every player has the ability to take the mound if need be. Included in that group is 15-year-old Jack Reifschneider, who moved up during the season from the younger independent team and made a major contribution with his poise on the hill, working in three of the victories.

One-by-one, Post 24 started to pick off teams in the loser’s bracket, ending their tournament stays. After winning on Thursday, the team — mostly playing in the blistering 100-degree heat as well as the oppressive humidity — won two more games on Friday. Then came two more wins on Saturday to move to the doorstep of history.

There was no denying this team by now. It tore into Andover for five second-inning runs in the winner-take-all championship game and it was as stress-free as Schmidt could have hoped for. McPherson’s last Legion championship of any kind occurred in 1975 when it was a higher-class team. It also won a Class A title 60 years ago in 1954.

McPherson had been fielding two Legion teams for a long time. But given the dwindling numbers and the fact most of the baseball talent at McPherson High was young, the decision was made before the season to field one younger team and build for the future.

The future is now.

Schmidt said at times he just enjoyed sitting back and watching the team play as it had a high baseball IQ. Void of power, he had it play to its strengths. That included a lot of bunting and stealing, pushing the envelope and causing the opposing teams’ defenses to make the mistakes. The McPherson defense at times struggled early in the season, but once positions were affirmed, that became another of the team’s strengths.

Schmidt believed the team’s camaraderie also played an important role. There were no superstars, just a blue-collar group that came to the park every game ready to play with a no-nonsense approach.

“Everybody did their job,” seemingly was his stock answer as the wins started to pile up, 28 in all and 23 in the last 25 games. “I told them you’re not playing for yourselves, but for all the kids. We had a plan with the MBA and we’ve stuck to it. This is big for McPherson baseball and Legion baseball. We can’t give up on what we’re doing.”

The summer season also erased a lot of the bad taste of the McPherson High 2014 spring season. A new coach was hired at the start, but lasted just two games due to philosophical differences, which he took blame for. What was thought to be a promising season crashed and burned into a 6-15 record and first-round regional exit.

But Schmidt, who sat in the stands during the debacle knowing what this group was capable of, entered the summer with high hopes. It played the toughest portion of the schedule early, splitting the first 10 games. But it played well in some of those losses and by the time it reached the soft underbelly stretch of games, it dismantled opponents, often in run-rule fashion to give it confidence.

The team did lose steady Griffin Myers for zone and state due to age restrictions. Other than that, Cody Starkel — who was named Sunday as the winner of the state sportsmanship award — was the only starter who will be a senior for MHS next year, while the others have at least two years left.

Another plus of the summer was that new Bullpup coach Heath Gerstner was involved with the program for the better part of six weeks. Schmidt said he welcomed his suggestions and it will also make Gerstner’s transition seamless. 

“Our kids are comfortable with him already,” Schmidt said. “He took time out of his summer and moving (to town) to help us. That says a lot about him. And I don’t know where we’d been without (assistant coach) Scott Graham. He has done so much for us.”

Gerstner will now enter next spring familiar with the Bullpups. They will be much the same team as was on the field this summer, but now armed with supreme confidence.

Next summer, McPherson is expected to go back to two Legion teams. This group will move up in class while another team will play Class A. This should develop depth and hopefully both teams will enjoy considerable success.

It’s great to see the American Legion Post 24 so involved with the program and providing assistance. It seems so long since the 1970s and 1980s when it was at its peak. Baseball is experiencing a renaissance in McPherson and hopefully more and more kids will return to playing what is known as “America’s Pastime.”