When it came to attracting teams for a new summer American Legion baseball tournament in the metro-east, local organizers had no difficulty.
Belleville, Fairview Heights and Alton are the host cities for the inaugural 15-team Southwest Illinois Firecracker Classic. The tourney begins at 10 a.m. Saturday with two full days of pool play at Whitey Herzog Field in Belleville, Moody Park in Fairview Heights and Gordon Moore Park in Alton.
"We had great response from outside the area and at first we had a waiting list of teams from places like Nebraska, Indiana, Kentucky and Arkansas," said Fairview Heights manager Craig Steiner, although some of those teams later declined for economic reasons. "We may expand to 20 teams next year and I don't think we'll have any trouble doing it."
The semifinals are set for 11 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. Monday at Whitey Herzog Field in Belleville, followed by the championship at 3:30 p.m.
Pitching depth -- and keeping the players cool -- will be at premium. Teams could play up to six games in three days in heat that is expected to reach 100 degrees or higher.
"Not only do you have to have good front-line pitching, you're going to have to have good secondary guys step up," Belleville manager Zach Rakowski said. "I think we've had 10 guys throw so far and they've all done a quality job."
Belleville (25-8) has been among the best teams in District 22 all summer and was placed in a pool that includes pre-tourney favorite Texarkana, Ark.
"I think it will be tough, but it will be a good challenge for the guys, too," Rakowski said. "They want to play good teams and see how we measure up. Not only do you get to see good teams, you get to see teams which you don't normally play and the kids always enjoy that."
The championship site will be rotated each year, moving to Fairview Heights in 2013 and Alton the following year.
Steiner said Texarkana has numerous Division I recruits and only two losses through early this week. Eagan, Minn., which took second place in Minnesota last summer to a team that went on to the win the Legion World Series, is another strong program from outside the area.
Belleville, Fairview Heights and Alton have all visited the Illinois state tournament in recent years, with Belleville winning a state title.
In a wood bat league, Belleville has been getting major offensive production from Alex Heitzman (.424, nine doubles, one homer, 15 RBIs), Jason Klein (.421, 12 doubles, three triples, one homer, 26 RBIs), Aaron Meyer (.369, 16 RBIs) and Caleb Tatum (.338, seven doubles, two homers, 19 RBIs).
Belleville's Atlee Champion (.355, seven RBIs), Cameron Lofton (.329, 20 runs, eight doubles, 10 RBIs) and Austin Bammer (.290, five doubles, 13 RBIs) have also been solid contributors.
Belleville's top pitchers have been Meyer (4-0, 1.25 ERA), Tatum (4-2, 1.45 ERA, 44 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings), Sam Lidisky (3-1 with three saves and a 2.02 ERA) and Ian Zimmermann (4-1, 3.06 ERA).
Fairview Heights (12-6) is coming off a 1-0 victory Wednesday over Alton with pitchers Alex Siddle and Darius Box combining on the shutout.
"We've been playing a lot of kids -- getting a lot of kids at-bats and a lot of pitchers innings -- which is what we feel we need to do," Steiner said. "We want to keep them all sharp and keep them all playing. Our pitching has been really good."
Vinnie Birk, a Belleville East graduate who just finished his freshman season at Blackburn College, has been a force at the plate and on the mound for Fairview Heights.
Through 13 games he was hitting .455 with 13 RBIs, while another college player, Darin Pitts, was at .300 with five doubles, two triples, one homer and 20 RBIs.
Siddle (.447, 11 RBIs), shortstop Logan Reno (.381, 12 RBIs) were also off to good starts.
Recent O'Fallon High graduate Sam Hopkins (2-0, 2.57 ERA), Box (1-1, 1.93 ERA) and Birk (2-1, 2.35 ERA) have helped anchor the pitching staff along with Justin Wallace (2-2).
Tournament of Champions
One of the region's longest running summer Legion events is the Tournament of Champions, which also begins Saturday and has been scaled back to three pools of four teams this season.
Bethalto, Edwardsville and Highland will each serve as host sites and games will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday with the final games beginning each day at 8 p.m.
The quarterfinals are Monday, with the semifinals and championship game set for Tuesday at Glik Park in Highland.
Metro-east teams competing in the tourney are Highland, Troy and Bethalto, with plenty of St. Louis-area teams as well as Morton and Quincy from Illinois and Little Rock, Ark.
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at email@example.com or 239-2454.