BELLEVILLE — Off to a 4-0 start in District 22 American Legion baseball, the Belleville Hilgards believe their deep pitching and versatile lineup could pave the way for a successful summer.
"Last year I think our front-end (pitching) may have been a little bit stronger, but in terms of quality depth it's pretty good again," said Belleville manager Zach Rakowski, who believes he could call on as many as 10 players on the roster to pitch if necessary. "With all those guys, we can play eight to 10 games in a week and it's not going to kill us. It's difficult getting everybody to pitch well, but we have people capable of handling that.
"(Belleville West pitchers) Parker Beine and Cory Renois haven't even pitched yet and we've had solid outings across the board."
Southwestern Illinois College pitcher Ian Zimmermann (1-0, 0.00 ERA) struck out 14 in his first start as one of seven pitchers to get innings already.
The mound staff includes college freshman Zimmermann and Alex Sandheinrich, Belleville West pitchers Beine, Renois, Aaron Meyer and Brendan Saak, plus Althoff pitchers Bryce Richter, Atlee Champion, Tyler Schmid and Ryan Marcum.
Meyer is headed to John A. Logan College as an infielder and Renois will pitch for Rend Lake College. Belleville was 34-13 last season and lost to Smithton in the District 22 South Division playoffs.
Rakowski said his club's pitching and versatility could play a big factor in the team's success rate this summer.
"We have a lot of depth all over the place," he said. "We've hit pretty well as a team and the pitching's been really good. We just have to be confident offensively. We have guys that are capable of hitting and I think we can score a lot of runs, but we just need to believe we can do it."
Other returning players from college include Jason Klein (Fontbonne) and Austin Bevenue (Knox College).
Austin Bammer and Ethan Lewis (both from Belleville West) will handle the catching duties with SWIC recruit Adam Bauer (Belleville West) and Klein at first.
Luke Frazier (Althoff) and Sandheinrich are at second with Meyer at short. Meyer (.467 with two doubles and five RBIs in four games) and Klein were two of the team's top hitters a year ago and Meyer is coming off a strong senior season at West that saw him hit .465 with 10 doubles and 16 RBIs.
Rakowski said Beine has also showed early signs of being a productive hitter. He was at .583 through four games (7-for-12) with two doubles and an RBI.
Klein, Bevenue and Renois will see time at third base.
"We have a lot of flexibility with kids that can play multiple spots and do a good job with it," Rakowski said. "That allows you to give people days off when you need it or if somebody's in a funk, you can give someone else a shot."
The outfield includes Saak in center, plus Richter, Champion, Beine and Marcum.
Among the key losses from last season are pitchers Sam Lidisky (McKendree) and Caleb Tatum (SWIC), second baseman Alex Heitzman and outfielder Cameron Lofton (SWIC).
Just like the recent high school season, Rakowski believes District 22 will be extremely balanced with a lot of talent mixed throughout the league.
Rakowski's growing coaching staff include eight former Hilgards players who have returned to the program to help out on the Junior or Senior Legion level.
"That's impressive to see that many former players back," Rakowski said.