Hamburg making the most of Pa. Legion’s first ‘Division 2’ postseason

The Hamburg American Legion Baseball team will compete in the inaugural Pa. Division 2 state tournament. (Submitted photo)
The Hamburg American Legion Baseball team will compete in the inaugural Pa. Division 2 state tournament. (Submitted photo)

It’s been 30 years since Hamburg has made an appearance in the Pennsylvania American Legion state baseball tournament and 54 years since the organization won its only first and only state title.

The Hamburg Reds will have a chance to make history this weekend at Bloomsburg, thanks to a new tournament in its first season.

Pa. Legion ball adopted a new classification — already in use by certain other states — this past winter designed for smaller schools/territories, based upon enrollment.

Dubbed ‘Division 2’, Hamburg was on board with the concept from the start. The Reds, managed and run by veteran head coach Nick Evangelista, enthusiastically committed to Division 2’s postseason back in March by agreeing to host the new small program Region 2 tournament. It’s an idea that seems perfectly melded to Hamburg’s small town baseball approach and aura.

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“It’s great going through it,” Evangelista said. “It gave a ton of teams a chance to play playoff baseball for smaller communities, smaller territories if you will. … All of our kids went to school together, Little League together. We don’t have anyone on our team who did not play under the Hamburg Little League.

“I’ve been on board with this 100-percent. It gives us a chance to compete and have some success, an opportunity that these kids otherwise would have never gotten.”

As hosts, the Reds were guaranteed a spot in the new Region 2 playoff, but Evangelista’s club did anything but back door their way in. Hamburg’s regular season success in the Schuylkill-Berks League (11-2, third place) earned the hosts the top seed. A six-team pool play tournament (later reduced to five teams due to a forfeiture) saw the Reds capture the title two weekends ago at Etchberger Park by virtue of winning the championship game over S-B rival Valley View.

That Region 2 title earned Hamburg a berth in the first-ever Division 2 state tournament, where the club will compete in a four-team, double-elimination competition this weekend, July 28-30, at Central Columbia High School. The Reds will battle against Mifflinburg, McConnellsburg and Lilly to bring a state Legion title back to Berks County’s true Baseballtown for the first time since 1963.

“It was nice to be able to win our way in,” Evangelista said. “It’s a great opportunity for our kids. I think we have the pitching staff to stay in ballgames if we don’t beat ourselves. I think we have chance to win every ballgame we play.”

Hamburg’s skipper is anticipating a competitive weekend of baseball to see who is crowned the first-ever Division 2 state champion.

“This thing isn’t necessarily small-caliber baseball, either,” Evangelista added. “These teams can all play and compete. Mifflinburg has wins over teams that are in the (‘new’ Division 1) state tournament in Ephrata. … It’s not ‘Division 2’ caliber baseball. It’s still very much some of the best in the state. You’re talking about four of the best teams left. It just happens to be smaller territories.”

Pa. Legion adopted the format last winter on a probationary period, wanting to see how it goes this summer. Tied in with that was declining the opportunity to align itself immediately with Nationals — so that makes this weekend’s state tourney the end of the line. Evangelista thinks Division 2 will become permanent.

“I believe it’s here to stay. There’s been some regional and state directors asking for feedback,” Evangelista said. “I have some ideas and I know they took some of my ideas to heart when this thing was coming to fruition at the regional level. … I think this thing can be as good and as strong as the Division 1 tournament moving forward. There are things that can be done that can send this through the roof.”

Division 2’s future will be discussed at a state Legion meeting scheduled for October, according to veteran Region 2 director Barry Werley. Werley was a key backer of the concept when it was introduced last offseason.

“We wanted to get more kids involved (in postseason baseball),” Werley said. “That was the main reason. It’s an experiment to see which way we go. … In our region it was well-received. I know we have more interest. It was something we wanted to try and we do have interest for it. It helped me get more teams involved in the postseason. I know Nick’s a happy camper. He’s anxious to get up there (Bloomsburg) and get going.”

Werley said he is also confident that Division 2 will become a permanent fixture within Pa. Legion ball.

Even though Bloomsburg is not too far a drive, the Reds plan to lodge the club up there for the balance of the three-day tournament.

“We want the kids to have the full experience,” Evangelista said. “Who knows if they’ll ever have this chance again. Give them the best experience, the best rest. It also gives us a chance to check out the other teams, especially opening day. I’d hate to have to run home and back every day. We want to do the right thing and stay up there and give it all we have for all three days.”

The Reds will be led by Schuylkill-Berks League All-Stars Logan Adams (.436 batting average; 5-1, 2.96 ERA), Cory Evangelista (.312), Ryan Smith (.308; 2-1, 2.20 ERA), and Janson Youndt (.500).

Hamburg opens with Mifflinburg on Friday, July 28 at 3:30 p.m., with Lilly and McConnellsburg squaring off in the other opening round at game at 7. The winners and losers bracket games are slated for Saturday; the championship game (and possible ‘if game’, as a true double-elimination) will start at 1 on Sunday.

“Winning Game 1 is huge,” Evangelista said. “If you lose Game 1, you’ve got to win two on Saturday and two on Sunday, four straight. So there’s nothing we’re gonna be cute about.”

Evangelista doesn’t underplay what winning state title would mean to his hometown.

“It would mean the world to this community and this organization,” he said. “A lot of good people have been a part of this organization. For us to be able to go up there and bring a state championship back, it would be something very special for this community.”