Legion playoffs ready to begin; Post 248 looks to make a run in wide-open District Eight Div. II field

How tight is at the top of the Eighth District Division II American Legion Baseball standings?
Ely went into the final weekend with a chance to finish anywhere from first to sixth in a nine-team field.
That sort of parity should make for an interesting district tournament, which starts Tuesday with games at both Marble and Nashwauk.
After qualifying for the high school baseball Class A state tournament, Ely faces a much more difficult road in Legion ball with the addition of Class AA schools including Esko, Proctor and Greenway, which forms the Taconite team that is hosting this week’s double-elimination event.
But Ely (9-7) is no slouch, and went into the final weekend of regular season play still in the running for the number-one seed.
Post 248 hosts Taconite Sunday (1 p.m.) to close out the regular season, following Friday night league tilts against both Esko and Deer River.
The weekend homestand figures to be a prime tune-up for Ely, which struggled in its district opener at Taconite but has since won five-of-six league games.
The only blemish since was a 7-4 loss last weekend to Proctor, a game that Ely led 4-1 going into the final frame.
Proctor, which reached the finals last year, joins Taconite (12-7) and Esko (10-3) as potential favorites in the field, while Ely is looking to knock off some of the larger-school foes.
“The tournament may be as wide open as it’s ever been,” said Ely Head Coach Tom Coombe. “Any of six teams have a legitimate shot to win the tournament, and anyone could win a first-round game. Getting hot at the right time and staying out of the losers’ bracket may be the difference.”
Pitching is always at a premium in a double-elimination tournament, and it’s perhaps more so this year with American Legion baseball’s switch to pitch count rules that were also in place this year in high school baseball.
“You’re looking at a situation where, especially if you get into the losers’ bracket, you may play five or six games in three days,” said Coombe. “A pitcher who throws on Friday probably won’t be able to come back the next two days, so you’re going to have to be efficient, and if you lose, you have to have a lot of arms.”
Ely has a mix of pitching depth, with lefty Trevor Mattson (2-1, 1.17 earned run average) and junior righthander Zach Anderson (3-0, 1.40) both turning in solid starts this summer. Gage Merhar was dominant for six innings before fading in the seventh against Proctor, while college freshman Tayler Banks has won his last two starts.
Ely has perhaps its best hitting team in four years, with Merhar (.517, 34 RBI) heading an offense that has compiled a .312 team batting average.
Banks (.382, 14 RBI), Tyler Housey (.340), Mark Killoran (.326) and Joe Wenzel (.317) are all swinging hot bats for Post 248.
Following first-round action Tuesday, the teams take two days off before returning to Marble and Nashwauk on Friday.
The district finals are slated for Sunday, July 23, with the champion advancing to the state tournament at New London-Spicer the following weekend.
Ely last reached the Division II state tournament in 2012.
• Banks tossed a five-hitter and struck out six in Ely’s 14-5 win at Moose Lake Tuesday.
At the plate, Merhar had a bases-clearing double and a sacrifice fly, while Housey was two-for-two with three runs scored. Killoran and Banks added two hits each, and Wenzel ripped a two-run double.