Associated with the Belleville American Legion baseball program since 2002, Greg Eschman has coached the Hilgards to winning seasons and losing seasons.
But Eschman has never entered a season when there has been fewer teams within American Legion District 22. Always a contender to reach the state tournament, the Hilgards are in the midst of a season that has only four other teams.
“We have New Athens, East St. Louis, Alton and Highland. That’s it. Jerseyville, which I believe is in District 23, plays a lot of District 22 teams and so that gives us another team to compete against. But its tough,’’ Eschman said. “Edwardsville dropped out at the last minute this year, New Baden no longer has a team.
“You just have to think outside of the box. There are several teams on the Missouri side who are willing to play a home-and-home. So we’re able to play games.’’
While American Legion baseball numbers are dwindling in the metro-east, the Hilgards remain successful. With a roster primarily made up of players from Belleville West and Althoff, the Hilgards have started the season with a 5-0 record..
Eschman’s Hilgards program is in better shape than many others. While several of the area’s top high school players opt to play in select, traveling and high school summer league programs, the competition for players — at least at the senior legion level — hasn’t hurt Belleville.
Eschman said last week that he turned players away.
“Legion baseball is certainly facing some challenges. We aren’t the only game in town. There are all kinds of leagues, select teams, traveling teams, teams in St. Louis and some high schools have their own summer teams which play. We’re competing for players,’’ Eschman said. “I can usually get the high school seniors.
“We’re doing alright at the senior level. It’s at the junior level where we’ve struggled the last few years. Like I said, there are other options. The interest isn’t what it used to be.’’
Eschman does have plenty of experienced talent returning from a team which finished with a winning record in 2018. The Hilgards rebounded from a slow start to finish second in District 22, losing to Edwardsville, 5-2, in the title game of the postseason playoffs.
“Half the team last year was eligible to play at the junior legion level but we needed them to play at the senior level. We took our lumps early. But we got better as the season went on. We gave Edwardsville a game. We had our chances.. We just didn’t get the big hit,’’ Eschman said.
“But this year, we’ve got 10 kids back. Plus we picked up Will Lanxon and J.B. Bierman from Belleville West. As long as kids keep showing up, we should be alright.’’
Lanxon, one of the top shortstops in the Southwestern Conference during the high school season, and Bierman, an All-SWC catcher, have been welcome additions to a Hilgards team that should contend for the District 22 championship.
Bierman is splitting time at catcher and second base with Dillon Sundquist, who was the Hilgards’ catcher a year ago.
Lanxon is also part of a four-man pitching rotation that includes Bernard, Justin Goerger and Hunter Grupe.
Althoff standout Jack Ysursa also is expected to play a role on the Hilgards’ staff while Eschman is also looking at several other younger pitchers to help out as the schedule backs up and the playoff nears.
“You never have too much pitching,’’ Eschman said. “Right now we’re just trying to get our pitchers enough work to keep them sharp, but once the schedule backs up and you get into the playoffs and are playing twice a day or four games in three days, you need to have pitchers ready to go.’’
Lanxon and Colin Wagner have been keys at the top of the order in the early going while Grupe and Tyler Adams, who played at Belleville West, have been solid run producers in the middle of the batting order.