Jul. 15—History was inevitable for the American Legion baseball teams taking part in this summer's trial season for a 15-and-under junior league.
The chance was there for all 10 teams, split between the Greenwood and Columbia areas, to be the first to capture a new championship for their post.
Aiken Post 26 seized that opportunity last week, winning a league title in dramatic fashion to set up a one-game overall championship Friday night against a familiar foe.
Post 26′s walk-off win over Greenwood Post 20 wrapped up a 7-1 run through league play (11-3 overall) and set up the finale against Lexington-Gray, set for 8 p.m. at the Midlands Dixie Youth Baseball Complex in West Columbia.
"No matter what level of baseball you're in, whether it be high school or a showcase team or whatever, it's hard to win a championship," said head coach Richard Abney. "I think the kids rose to the occasion."
Post 26′s lone loss in league play was an early one to North Augusta. The rest were all wins coming over North Augusta, Ninety Six, Emerald and Greenwood.
The clincher was the type of nailbiter that previous Post 26 teams frequently provided. Post 26 jumped out to an early lead but then let Greenwood back into the game, leaving the teams tied at 5 in the bottom of the seventh.
Will Haltiwanger faced the ultimate now-or-never situation — bases loaded with two outs and a 3-2 count. He delivered with a single into right field, setting off a championship celebration at Citizens Park.
"I could just see when that final hit fell in, the guys poured out of the dugout and did a little mini-dog pile there," Abney said. "I think they were pretty psyched about the whole thing. The buildup to it, any time you have a league and you can win it, it's hard to do. Everybody got to contribute, which was good throughout the summer."
Abney is hopeful that this historic title isn't a one-time run for this group — he'd like to see the 15u league continue and thrive within the state. This summer's trial run was important for the future of the league, and Abney feels good that the state organization reached out to have a team in Aiken.
The roster reached its limit of 18 players — some actually had to be turned away because so many showed up to tryouts — representing several different area schools. For many it was their first time playing on a team together, and Abney thinks his players forged relationships they won't soon forget.
Eight different players had a batting average of .300 or higher, led by Cross Yarborough at .575, and eight different players scored at least 10 runs. Dune Staniszewski batted .520 with a team-high 18 runs scored, and Chance Weathersbee batted .500. Carver Vaughn and Haltiwanger each hit .407.
Just as deep is the selection of pitchers, and Abney feels confident he has plenty of players in his dugout who can take the mound and get an out or two whenever asked. Stephen Platte, Chris Kinard and Jackson Wright have all been top options that Abney called upon in the league title clincher against Greenwood, and he said Landen Kirkbride and Audyn Randall have emerged as reliable arms.
One goal with the 15u team is to keep those players together as they move through the Post 26 program to the 17-and-under junior team and 19-and-under senior squad, and certainly one way to get them excited to come back for another ride is by winning a championship.
They'll always have this historic achievement to carry with them, and Friday they can track down another against Lexington-Gray. Gray emerged from the Columbia-area league as undefeated champions and also handed Post 26 its two non-league losses.
"You never can tell what can happen. Both teams, the pitching is rested up," Abney said. "... Everybody's locked and loaded for this one. I think you'll see the best that Lexington and Gray has to put out there, and we'll try to do the same. It'll be fun."