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Posted July 28, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Post 53 returns to state tourney


Members of Front Royal's Post 53 American Legion baseball team pose with the championship trophy after defeating Winchester Post 21 in the District 16 tournament last week. Post 53 will play in the state tournament today. Courtesy photo

By Ben Brooks -- sports@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- The last time an American Legion baseball team from Front Royal celebrated a state championship was 1963.

Now, 46 years later, new Post 53 players set their sights on that same lofty goal. The eight-team, double-elimination American Legion tournament begins today in the Richmond suburb of Glen Allen with Front Royal taking on Norfolk Post 60 at 10 a.m.

"There's a lot of excitement within the community," Post 53 manager Mike Smith said Saturday at one of Front Royal's final practices at Bing Crosby Stadium. "These kids have established a tradition. This team has set the standard for years to come."

The recipe for Post 53's success this summer has been a large helping of current and former Skyline and Warren County High School standouts, with talent from area Frederick County schools Sherando and Millbrook sprinkled in.

That melting-pot roster made things even more spicy when West Division rivals Post 53 and Winchester Post 21 (made up mostly of Winchester and Frederick County players) hooked up three times in the District 16 tournament that determined the state representative. Front Royal took two of the three games from the regular-season champions, including a 12-6 come-from-behind victory in the title game.

"It adds great flavor to the game," said Sherando graduate Nick Merchant, a four-year member of Post 53 who grew up in Front Royal but moved to Frederick County while in middle school. "It makes you play even harder. You've spent so many years sweating and bleeding with those guys and now you're playing against them."

Merchant, headed to play baseball at Radford University in the fall, was 2-0 on the mound in the district tournament and part of a potent Front Royal offensive attack that amassed 79 hits over five games. Merchant, named tournament MVP, batted .666 and had 11 RBIs.

"Our hitting has been what's carried us," Smith said. "Pitching has kept us in games and our defense has been coming along, but we've really been hitting it well."

In Front Royal's 14-9 regular season, Skyline all-state catcher Keaton Neeb led the team with a .516 batting average. Merchant batted .462, while Skyline's Michael Accettullo and 2008 Sherando grad Jeff Porter hit .333.

On the mound, Warren County's Shawn Brown was 4-0 and Skyline's John King and Merchant went 3-1.

The rest of the roster includes Skyline's Tyler Settle, Travis Custer, Nathaniel Jackson, Ryan Settle, Tyler Atkins, Tim Senter, and Joe Comstock; Warren County's Jonathan Nicholson; and Millbrook's Jordan Hartman.

While Post 53, second to Winchester in the regular season, may have been a slight underdog heading into the district tournament, players and coaches didn't buy it.

"We knew if we had everyone there and played together we could beat anybody in the tournament," said Neeb, who will attend VMI in the fall.

"I felt pretty good about our chances," Smith added. "But I knew we'd have to go through Winchester. It's nice that both the top teams came from our area. It says a lot about area baseball. It's very competitive."

Nearly a decade ago, Smith, then a junior varsity baseball coach at Warren County, noticed there was no longer an American Legion team in Front Royal. He and Al Lambert went about changing that. It took some time, but Post 53 is finally starting to reap the fruits of that labor.

Whether that translates into another state title or not remains to be seen.

"We're on a pretty good roll right now," Smith said. "We know we're going to face good competition, especially pitching. But I think we'll be up to the challenge."

Post 53's roster isn't drastically different from last year's team that made a quick exit in the district tournament. Neeb believes an extra year made all the difference.

"I think it's just a case of a lot of the older guy knowing that this is their last year playing and really wanting to win," he said. "I think that attitude really rubbed off on the younger players."

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