For a few reasons, this regular season has been different than the other 20 summers that Andy Christensen has been the head coach of the La Crosse Post 52 Legion baseball team.
In a season of setbacks, and at the onset of hosting a AAA regional at Copeland Park this week, Christensen is vying to make his 12th state tournament appearance and get Post 52 back to Appleton for the first time in five years.
One explanation for the offbeat summer is a lack of numbers, which resulted in the shortest legion season Christensen can recall.
Out of the 34 regular season games Christensen had scheduled for Post 52, only 19 were played, with no double-headers. While it had a 7-5 record in tournament play, Post 52 was winless (0-6) in non-tournament games until the last week of the regular season.
With a roster composed of mostly Aquinas High School players, Post 52 was without them until the Blugolds wrapped up their state championship run this spring. Most of the Central players weren’t ready for the Post 52 season opener either, because it was scheduled two days after the Red Raiders were bounced from sectionals.
With the spring season ending on June 15, and legion regionals starting tomorrow, there’s about a month to get a team to mesh and play well together — something that’s tricky to do when pulling from a wavering group of nine to 12 guys for each game.
“Sometimes you don’t have a shortstop or a third baseman — but I guess we have a catcher (tonight), which is good to know,” said Christensen, before Post 52 played the Rochester Patriots Thursday night at Copeland.
Christensen says there are six different junior legion and legion teams playing in La Crosse this summer.
“We’re spread very thin all throughout the city,” said Christensen.
When Christensen started coaching legion, there were certain aspects that made it unique from spring ball, like finding pitchers in guys who’d never thrown before. But without a surplus of players, Post 52 has had to rely on the guys proven from the spring.
“Back in the day when you played more games, you could find a pitcher that you didn’t know of in the spring,” said Christensen. “Teams can rely on just two to three pitchers in spring ball, and sometimes you want to give those guys a little break in the summer.”
Post 52 has banked on Kyle Gilbertson and John Savoldelli as aces, and has Andy Dunham, Zach Lueth and Waylon Alvarado for other starting arms. Luckily, starters have been able to go deep into games for La Crosse, saving the stress of finding relief.
Logan players began to split from the three-team compiled Post 52 in 2008, making a separate northside legion team. Post 52 endured the loss of numbers up until about two summers ago, when Central began only contributing five or six guys. Along with the addition of a northside team, participation for legion baseball has always been a conundrum with guys having jobs and vacations they’re committed to in the summer.
“For the most part we’ve played well in our tournaments, but during the week it’s been tough on us, just getting nine guys here,” said Christensen, who said Post 52 isn’t the only legion team facing number issues this summer. “They don’t communicate real well, unless you text them, and I’m not a texter.”
Post 52’s habit of playing significantly better in tournaments than during the week is the result of the lack of guys getting to the ballpark to play, so it’s difficult to say what it’s capable of.
Post 52 has shown flashes of being a competitive team in the three tournaments they’ve played in this summer, giving all three tournament champions (Madison Impact, Mahtomedi and Arlington Heights) their only losses of the weekend.
Christensen is entering his first legion postseason without having his longtime cohort and friend Jim Coonan in the dugout with him.
Coonan — Coach Cooney to anyone familiar with Post 52 baseball — passed away just before the summer began, coached for 20 seasons and won five state championships before handing reign to Christensen and becoming his associate and confidant for 20 seasons.
Cooney’s absence from Post 52 is still fresh, and therefore not often discussed by Christensen yet — but it’s felt by everyone.
“He’s been sitting at the end of the dugout every single game for as long as I’ve been playing,” said Kyle Gilbertson, who’s in his third summer playing with Post 52. “So not having him there, and hearing his experiences has been really hard.”
Gilbertson says Post 52 played some of their best baseball at the start of the summer when they beat Madison and Plover in the Boober Parizek classic, when they were inspired to play well in Cooney’s honor.
Post 52 will look to play a similar kind of inspired baseball tomorrow in the four-team double-elimination regional.