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updated: 8/8/2012 3:47 PM

Thong enjoys Northbrook's surprise ride

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  • Wheeling graduate Kalvin Thong is one of the top players for the Northbrook American Legion baseball team making an unexpected trip to the Great Lakes Regional tournament which begins today in Midland, Mich.

      Wheeling graduate Kalvin Thong is one of the top players for the Northbrook American Legion baseball team making an unexpected trip to the Great Lakes Regional tournament which begins today in Midland, Mich.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

By Marty Maciaszek

Kalvin Thong planned to spend this weekend getting ready for school at Kankakee Community College.

The Wheeling graduate and two-time all-Mid-Suburban League baseball player did not expect to be on a bus Wednesday morning bound for Midland, Mich., and the Great Lakes American Legion baseball regional tournament.

But Thong and a bunch of his Northbrook teammates were in the midst of a 320-mile trip as part of a whirlwind 24 hours which saw the program's best season ever get a surprising extension. The Braves are now the second representative from Illinois in the eight-team tournament which starts Thursday after state runnerup Wheaton had to forfeit its spot because it was unable to meet the minimum roster requirement of 12 players mandated by the American Legion.

"It was obviously a big surprise that we were going," said Thong, who is one of seven players who graduated from or currently attend Wheeling who will play in the regional. "I was shocked (when I heard) and I didn't know what was going on.

"Somehow people started pitching in to go. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go to regionals."

The trip and facing host Midland (36-10), which is looking for its fourth trip to the American Legion World Series and won it all in 2009, at approximately 7:30 p.m. Chicago time Thursday may seem pretty mundane compared to what occurred for Cook County champion Northbrook (43-10) to get its first chance to play in a regional in the 40-year tenure of coach Mitch Stewart.

Northbrook went 1-2 at the state tournament in Mattoon while Wheaton took second to Moline. But a variety of conflicts left Wheaton one player short of the 12 needed to participate in American Legion state or national tournaments.

Danville, which took third in the state, was not able to get enough players and Stewart received a call around 1 p.m. Tuesday asking if he could field a team. At 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Stewart still didn't have enough players and at 8 p.m. it appeared Illinois wouldn't have a second team in the regional.

But about an hour later, Stewart was able to get commitments from 12 players who could play in the regional.

"It's been an absolutely crazy 24 hours," Stewart said. "Trying to dig up 12 players for the regional, getting them and then having some back out. We're happy to be here."

Joining Thong from Wheeling are Matt Hart, Theo Yfantis, David Shapiro, Nick Ricciardi, Bubba Bendewald and Angelo Deblasio. Stewart said Henry Erickson, who will start the first game on the mound, and John and Paul Boidanis and John Chico are among the players who will also play in the regional. Stewart also hopes standout shortstop Brett Synek can play after completing a class at Oakton College.

"It's really great for the kids who are still at Wheeling," Stewart said. "They're part of the best team they've ever been on and it's good for them. Now we have a new mission."

Which has Northbrook hoping to play better than it did in the state tourney, when Erickson also got sick the day he was supposed to pitch. Illinois state champion Moline (43-6) faces Michigan state champion Adrian at 4 p.m. Thursday with Wisconsin runnerup Ashport meeting Indiana state champ Terre Haute at 9 a.m. and Wisconsin state champ Madison facing Pickerington (Ohio) at approximately 12:30 p.m.

The double-elimination tourney is scheduled to end Monday with the winner advancing to the American Legion World Series on Aug. 17-21 in Shelby, N.C.

"It's been fun and it's been a great ride," Thong said. "We feel like we can do pretty well and we'll see what happens."

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