Idaho Falls, Idaho Post 56 entered the 2021 American Legion World Series as the event's last champion, from 2019.
And the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic meant Idaho Falls head coach Ryan Alexander entered the 2021 season with only one player back from that 2019 title team, and a lot of unknowns.
After Wednesday afternoon, Alexander now knows his team will go down in ALWS history after winning its second straight title with a 6-1 win over Honolulu, Haw., at Keeter Stadium at Veterans Field in Shelby, N.C.
"I am actually just so happy for these kids," said Alexander, whose team finished the season with a 46-10 overall record. "For me as a coach, there's shock because you never know if you're ever going to get back here."
Idaho Falls, which had become the 14th team to appear in back-to-back ALWS title games, becomes only the sixth back-to-back ALWS champion, joining Oakland, Calif. (1949-50), Cincinnati, Ohio (1957-58), West Covina, Calif. (1970-71), Rio Piedras, P.R. (1973-74) and Brooklawn, N.J. (2013-14).
Other teams to advance to back-to-back championship games were New Orleans. (1929-30), Trenton, N.J. (1945-46), Charlotte, N.C. (1964-65), Tuscaloosa, Ala. (1966-67), Memphis, Tenn. (1972-73), Boyertown, Pa. (1982-83 and 1987-88) and Eden Prairie, Minn. (2010-11).
Post 56, nicknamed the Bandits, broke open a scoreless battle with a six-run top of the fifth inning.
Eliot Jones drove in the first run with a RBI single. Other runs scored on a throwing error, Ace Webb's RBI single, a fielding error, R.J. Woods' RBI double and Bradley Thompson's RBI single.
Idaho Falls starter and winner Merit Jones did the rest with a five-hitter over 6 1-3 innings before he was relieved due to pitch count rules in the bottom of the seventh. Merit Jones, who picked up one win in the Northwest Regional and two wins in the 2021 ALWS, struck out eight and yielded five walks and one run before reliever Deezil Luce got the last two outs.
Eliot Jones (two hits, one RBI), Webb (two hits, one RBI), Woods (two hits, one RBI) and Nate Rose (two hits) led Post 56's 13-hit offense.
Just as importantly, Merit Jones followed the six-run rally by escaping potential trouble in the bottom of the fifth.
Honolulu, which finished the season at 34-2 overall, drew three straight walks to load the bases with none out and the top of its order coming to the plate.
But Merit Jones got a strikeout, a lineout and groundout to escape without allowing any damage, and keep the game's momentum with the Bandits.
"I was just thinking, 'I've got to throw strikes,'" Merit Jones said. "I just tried to grind it and make it work."
Honolulu coach Oly Gante felt that inning was clearly decisive.
"If we could've scored a couple there, we could've put some pressure on them," Gante said. "As it happened, it was just one bad inning there for us."
Centerfield Kai Howell, the lone returnee for Idaho Falls from its 2019 title team, was confident Merit Jones would get out of the jam.
"I had trust in him the whole time," Howell said. "I knew he was going to find a way to get out of it."
The contest was played at 1 p.m. local time after rainstorms associated with Hurricane Fred had postponed games on three straight nights.
For Idaho Falls, for whom the first pitch was at 11 a.m. local time, that only made it more familiar as the Bandits had won their 2019 title with a 5-3 victory over Fargo, N.D., in a Wednesday morning game that followed a contest suspended by a rainstorm the previous night.
"I'm speechless right now," Howell said. "It just feels great, especially for these guys doing it for the first time."
Honolulu's run came in the sixth inning on Micah Zeller's two-out RBI single.