The road to a district title was not an easy one.

But that made winning it that much sweeter.

With victories over the top two seeds, along with a thrilling comeback win, Washington’s Junior Legion baseball team definitely earned a championship plaque.

Third-seeded Washington Post 218 defeated No. 1 seed Elsberry, 3-1, on Saturday night in the championship game of the Ninth District Juniors Tournament at Rotary Recreational Complex - Ronsick Field.

“It was an impressive tournament for us,” Washington Manager Phillip Kleekamp said. “All of our kids did a great job. I can’t say enough about our boys. They did an awesome job.”

And after four impressive wins in five days, Washington earned the right to pose for pictures with the district championship plaque. The tourney hosts didn’t have an easy road to the championship. Before topping the No. 1 seed in the title game, Washington beat second-seeded Union on Wednesday, ending Post 297’s 18-game winning streak in the process. Post 218 then had to come from behind to get past St. Peters on Friday. Also, with the tourney’s new format, every team in the field was capable of making some noise, as there were no longer any “cupcake” games early in the tourney, as only the top eight teams in the district advanced to the postseason.

“This is the first year that not every team made it here,” Kleekamp said. “So every game in this tournament was legit. And we really earned it. We’ve won a lot of district championships in the past, but I don’t know if one was earned as much as this one. The Union game was a barn-burner and the St. Peters game, well that comeback was just unreal. The kids earned this and we’re very proud of them for putting it together this week.”

By winning the district tourney, Washington advances to this week’s Zone 1 Tournament. As the regular season champ Elsberry Post 226 also advanced to the Zone Tournament, which begins Thursday at Borgia.

Gus Gets It Done

Gus Kleekamp had never started a game on the mound this year for Post 218.

It was hard to tell.

Kleekamp was stellar on the hill in Saturday’s win over Elsberry, limiting the district’s regular season champion to virtually nothing in seven strong innings. The right-handed Kleekamp allowed just five hits and two walks while striking out two. He allowed no earned runs and got the win. Usually the team’s starting shortstop, Kleekamp threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 28 batters.

“I’ve only pitched in relief so I was a little anxious,” Gus said. “But my defense really worked for me. Adam Hinson filled in really well at shortstop. And I threw a lot of first-pitch strikes and was trying to move the ball around the zone. They weren’t catching up to my fastball so I didn’t have to throw off-speed pitches very much. Everything was working well for me.”

Phillip Kleekamp said his younger brother came up big on the bump.

“Gus threw about 75 pitches in seven innings, so he was very efficient,” Phillip said. “He was aggressive in the strike zone. And our defense is one of our strengths, too.”

Just Enough Offense

Washington scored just three runs on Saturday. They were enough.

“We picked up some runs being aggressive,” Phillip Kleekamp said. “We didn’t have one big hit today, but we had enough hits overall and did enough to put some runs across.”

Washington had five hits in the game — one apiece by Gus Kleekamp, Matt Miller, Trey Hunter, Adam Hinson and Kody Halmich. Hunter and Zach Marquart had RBIs, while Cody Smith, Adam Gauzy and Hunter scored the runs.

Elsberry scored its lone run of the game in the top of the second, taking advantage of two Post 218 errors and then a single by David Dietz to score a run.

Washington responded in the bottom half. Hunter reached on an error and then Halmich doubled to center. Next, Marquart’s sacrifice fly scored Hunter for a 1-1 game.

Post 218 took the lead for good in the bottom of the third.

Gus Kleekamp singled, with Smith pinch-running. After an out, Miller was hit by a pitch. Hunter then singled to right and Smith scored. Elsberry pitcher Zach Richardson then worked out of trouble by retiring Halmich and Marquart, as Post 218 stranded the bases loaded.

Washington pushed across an insurance run in the fourth when Gauzy scored from third on a wild pitch for a 3-1 lead. Gauzy had walked and stole second. He went to third on a fielder’s choice off the bat of Kleekamp, who then kept Post 226 in check for the rest of the game to secure the win.

“This feels great,” Gus Kleekamp said. “This is the second year in a row for a lot of us. We played some tough teams, but we brought our A game. We were ready.”

After posing for pictures with the district championship, the Post 218 players dumped a cooler of water on Manager Kleekamp.

Richardson took the loss for Elsberry, allowing two earned runs in six innings. He gave up five hits and four walks.

Richardson, Payton White, Branden Bennett, Dietz and Ryan Palmer had one hit apiece for Elsberry.

Zone Tourney Next

The Zone 1 Tournament begins Thursday at Borgia.

Chillicothe and Elsberry will meet at 5 p.m. on Thursday. As the district champ, Washington (25-4) will get a bye. Post 218 will play the winner of Elsberry-Chillicothe on Friday at 1 p.m.

“We’ll sit back and see what we’re dealing with,” Phillip Kleekamp said. “Elsberry’s a tough team, so we won’t take them lightly. But we’ve beaten them twice now. We don’t know a lot about Chillicothe. But I think we’re playing some of our best baseball right now, so hopefully we can keep it going through the tournament.”

The winner of the Zone Tournament will advance to the State Tournament.