A 3-5 start to the American Legion baseball season has the Belleville Hilgards searching for a little more consistency.
“We’re struggling to put it all together,” said Hilgards manager Jonathon Schweppe, in his first season in that position after replacing former Belleville manager Zach Rakowski. “We’re going to get there. One day our pitching’s on and the fielding not, or vice versa. The hitting’s been all right for the most part.”
Belleville is one of only three teams still playing in District 22. The others are the Bears, a compilation of players from Bethalto, Edwardsville, Alton and Roxana, along with a team in Highland. Fairview Heights did not field a Senior Legion team, but does have a Junior Legion team that needed players from Belleville to fill out the roster.
“Only having three teams in the district is kind of different,” said the 26-year-old Schweppe, who played for the Hilgards’ 2008 state championship team and helped coach Belleville Junior Legion teams the past five seasons. “When I played I think we had like 10 teams and that wasn’t that long ago.”
The long-running Belleville-Fairview Heights Senior Legion rivalry was one of the best in southerm Illinois, always drawing large crowds to Whitey Herzog Field or Moody Park (formerly Longacre). Schweppe is among those who will miss the rivalry.
I think they all know what the Hilgards are about. Our winning percentage is over .700 for the entire history of the Hilgards and that’s tough to do. We do as best as we can as coaches to show them all that and they understand what it means.
Belleville Hilgards manager Jonathon Schweppe
“We usually had a full house and everybody was ready to watch it,” Schweppe said. “They were always very competitive games.”
Schweppe said Belleville had no trouble filling out its 18-man Senior Legion roster. The Hilgards are off until Friday, when they begin a weekend tournament in Kokomo, Ind. It is one of three out-of-town tournaments they will play in this season; they also are one of the host sites for the annual Firecracker Classic the first week of July.
Belleville’s top pitchers include Jake Frazier (Althoff) and Rorey Keen (Althoff) along with Devin Hubbs (West), Jack Yusrsa (Althoff), Stephen Toenjes (Althoff) and Belleville West pitchers Jake Jenkins and Sam Bernosky.
Schweppe said Frazier has emerged as a potential staff ace.
“He’s been our solid No. 1,” Schweppe said. “He’s been pretty good all year.”
The catchers are Ysursa and Gavin Strieker, with Strieker also able to play the infield and outfield.
Wyatt Parker (West) is at first, with Buddy Gore (West) at second and Frazier and Keen at shortstop and third base depending on who is pitching. Schweppe said Strieker will also see time at third base.
The outfield includes Casey Arnold (Althoff) in left, with Trey Mosley (Althoff) in center and Toenjes and Tai Kezirian (West) in right.
Schweppe thinks his players are aware of the high expectations and proud past of the program.
“I think they all know what the Hilgards are about,” Schweppe said. “Our winning percentage is over .700 for the entire history of the Hilgards and that’s tough to do. We do as best as we can as coaches to show them all that and they understand what it means.”
Schweppe still remembers how memorable it was to win the Illinois state Legion baseball championship in 2008.
“It was phenomenal,” he said. “It was probably the best baseball experience I ever had. We just had a phenomenal team, more than half of our guys ended up playing college baseball on that club.”
There are still seven Junior Legion teams in District 22: Fairview Heights, Alton, Valmeyer, Freeburg, East St. Louis and two teams from Highland.
Belleville had two Junior Legion teams as recently as last summer, but now has none and is sharing its players with the Fairview Heights Junior Legion team.