One of the leaders on the Belleville American Legion baseball team that won the state championship in 2008 is trying to rekindle some of that Hilgard magic this summer.
Now in his second year as a coach, former pitcher Jonathan Schweppe and his Hilgards are off to a 9-3 start.
Belleville opened the season with six straight wins, finished fourth in the New Baden Tournament last weekend, and are on their way to the the Festus, Mo. Tournament which begins on Friday.
Schweppe and his assistants, Greg Eschman and Scott Lanxon, have seen some inconsistency from the Hilgards thus far in the season. That’s to be expected, Schweppe says, that tries to meld the best of two city high schools into a single unit.
At least that’s what he experienced when he played a nearly decade ago.
“That summer (2008) was the most fun I ever had playing baseball,” Schweppe, a Belleville West graduate, said on Monday. “During the high school season when we played Althoff we wanted to beat them bad and there are always some words exchanged. But there is a lot of baseball talent in Belleville and when you play legion baseball, you become brothers.
“Last weekend, we had some mental mistakes which cost us and I think some of it comes from not playing together and maybe being out of position in some cases. The more we play, the better we will be.”
Based on that theory, there should be plenty of time for team building over the next two weeks — the Hilgards play every day beginning Friday through June 25. Next week, the team has nine games in seven days.
Pitching has been the Hilgards’ calling card so far this season. The staff, which includes Jack Lanxon, Sam Bernosky, Jake Jenkins, Matt Sisk, Jake Frazier, Tai Kezirian and Deven Hubbs, Rory Keen, Cole Hensel, Jack Ysursa and Luke Vallandingham have all pitched well according to Scheweppe.
“Lanxon, Keen, Bernosky and Jenkins are our four starters even though Sisk started a game, Ryan Mentzer pitched a game for us at the New Baden Tournament and (Jack) Ysursa pitched very well for us one game, although he’s got kind of a tired arm right now,’’ Schweppe said. “We have a lot of relievers who can come in and throw five or six innings for us if I need them too.
“Our pitching staff has probably been our strength so far and we’ve got very good depth. That will come in handy in the next couple of weeks with as many games as we have coming up.”
Lanxon, one of the top players in the Southwestern Conference this past year, is hitting over .600 while leading the Hilgards defense as the starting center fielder.
“The kid is just a great athlete,” Schweppe said of Lanxon. “Before this weekend he was hitting close to .650 and in the outfield there has been only ball that I’ve seen get over his head. He can cover some ground in the outfield.”
Leadoff hitter Buddy Gore is hitting over .440 and playing a solid shortstop, while Logan Betz, Tyler Brinkman and catcher Ty Shylanski are all above the .300 mark.
Still, the Hilgards offense could be better.
“We’re just struggling with the bats a little bit. Brinkman is hitting over .300 but I know he’s a better hitter than that.’’ Schweppe said. “We have a number of guys who have struggled and we’re just not getting hits with runners in scoring position.”
Stephen Toenjes and Chad Sauls are two other players Schweppe is counting on to produce as the Hilgards prepare for the district and, hopefully, the state tournament.
“I think we have very good baseball team here,” Schweppe said. “I know it was disappointing for the players from Belleville (West) who beat Edwardsville twice during the regular season then lost in the regional. But this is a new season and I honestly think we could win the state tournament.
“I do wish more people from Belleville would come out and support these kids though. We have a great facility (Whitey Herzog Field), the players are all local and we play a pretty high brand of baseball. Plus, its free to watch.’’
At a glance
This is the remaining schedule for the Hilgards:
- 16-18: at Festus, Mo. Tournament
- 19: East St. Louis, 7:30 p.m.
- 20: Sparta, 6 p.m.
- 21: Bears, 8 p.m.
- 22: Aviston, 8 p.m.
- 23: New Baden, 6 p.m.
- 24: Highland, 2 p.m.
- 25: Washington, 6 p.m.
- 27: at Bears ( Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville), 8 p.m.
- 28: at New Baden, 6 p.m.
- 1-3: Firecracker Classic, TBA
- 6: at Valmeyer, 4 p.m.
- 7: Eureka, Mo., 6 p.m.
- 8: St. Genevieve, Mo. noon
- 10: at Smithton, 6 p.m.
Note: All home games are played at Whitey Herzog Field in Belleville