Stanley Post 266 had American Legion baseball for 16 years and was Area IV’s most dominant team in the late 1980s
By Richard Walker
Stanley American Legion Post 266 played only 16 seasons in North Carolina’s Area IV.
Born in 1981, Stanley eventually combined with Belmont Post 144 to form the Gaston Braves in 1997.
But in the late 1980s, there was no greater power in Area IV than Post 266, which in three straight seasons turned a low playoff seeding into an area championship team.
The three straight titles marked only the third time in Area IV history – Gastonia Post 23 won five straight championships from 1962 to 1966 and Newell Post 287 three straight from 1976 to 1978 – and the 10 playoff series wins in those three years account for all but four playoff series wins in Stanley’s 16-year history. (Cherryville Post 100 and Caldwell County Post 29 have since won three or more consecutive area titles with Cherryville taking the all-time record with six straight titles from 2007 to 2012.)
In each of Stanley’s area championship seasons, coach Darrell Van Dyke’s team was hardly a favorite entering the playoffs.
In 1987, Post 266 was the final postseason qualifier in an eight-team playoff bracket. And in 1988 and 1989, Stanley was the sixth-seeded team in the eight-team Eastern division playoffs each season.
An indication of how the team found its footing in the playoffs is that each season the team’s postseason record was better than its regular season record. In 1987, Post 266 went 13-6 in the playoffs after going 12-8 in the regular season. In 1988, Stanley was 11-8 in the playoffs and 9-9 in the regular season. And in 1989, Post 266 went 12-9 in the playoffs after going 7-9 in the regular season.
Some of the slow regular season starts were based on the makeup of the team – perennial high school playoff teams East Gaston, East Lincoln and North Gaston. In fact, in 1987, North Gaston won the N.C. 3A championship in a series that didn’t end until June 13 – or less than a month before the Legion regular season was slated to end.
But Stanley’s 1987 team won eight of its last 10 regular season games to claim the last Area IV playoff berth and a daunting matchup against the Area IV team with the best record in Forest City Post 74.
And Post 266 stayed hot in the postseason by sweeping its first two playoff series – 3-0 over Forest City and 4-0 over Burke County – before facing Bessemer City Post 243 in the Area IV finals.
The Stanley roster included future collegians Mark Baliles (Belmont Abbey), Kent Cloninger (Lenoir-Rhyne), Ralph Hoke (Shaw), Geoff Rosenbaum (Belmont Abbey), Greg Smith (Belmont Abbey) and John White (East Carolina) and future professional softball players Jeff Hall and Johnny McCraw; McCraw played baseball at Appalachian State and with the Houston Astros’ organization before playing pro softball.
In the Area IV final, Stanley fell behind two games to one before beating Bessemer City in three straight games by a combined 24-10 margin to win its first area championship.
Post 266 then lost four games to two to Haw River in the Western N.C. championship series.
In 1988, Baliles, Cloninger, Hoke, McCraw, Rosenbaum and Smith were back along with future collegian Brent Grice (Belmont Abbey) and future AAA minor-leaguer Chad Brown (Toronto Blue Jays) as Stanley again started slow (3-5) before getting hot in the playoffs
Even as Post 266 played its best in the postseason, it did lose the playoff opener in four of its five series and fell behind two games to none and three games to one against Burke County in the area finals before winning three straight games to take its second straight title.
Stanley then lost four straight games to eventual state champion Kernersville in the Western N.C. finals.
In 1989, another slow start (0-3) was followed by a more nail-biting playoff success as Baliles, Brown, Cloninger, Grice returned and future collegian Bart Davis (Belmont Abbey) was added to a group that also featured crafty left-hander E.L. Clark for the second straight season.
Post 266 played an won an elimination game in its first three playoff series – Newell, Pineville and Paw Creek – before winning four games to one over Cherryville in the area finals.
A four games to one loss to Mocksville in the Western N.C. championship series ended the three-year run.
Stanley would win only one more playoff series – in its final year of 1996 – before Post 266 combined with Belmont to form the Gaston Braves.