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Legion no longer a bridge too far

Jim Gasper with the Sussex Parks Department chalks the batters box on one of the fields at Sussex Armory Park on June 2 in preparation for an upcoming baseball game.

Jim Gasper with the Sussex Parks Department chalks the batters box on one of the fields at Sussex Armory Park on June 2 in preparation for an upcoming baseball game. Photo By Todd Ponath

Aug. 5, 2014

Players with a spring high-school baseball background tend to prefer the spring season. Likewise, players raised on summer baseball enjoyed the later start, with a much better chance of basking in the sun.

Neither would argue less play is better, as exposure can lead a player to bigger and better things. In Hartland, some believe it's high time time to mix and match both worlds. Post 294 will begin offering summer Legion ball next summer, coinciding perfectly with Arrowhead's move to spring baseball.

All the talk these days is about getting seen by college coaches, so when high schools like Arrowhead, Waukesha Catholic Memorial and Slinger decided to pull the trigger and make the transition to spring baseball, even those refusing to give up on summer ball understood. More is better.

Bring on spring baseball at Arrowhead High School, where it hasn't started so close to Daylight Savings Time since the early 1970s, back when names like Kevin Stapleton, Todd Morris and, of course, Tim O'Driscoll were commonplace with the Warhawks. The latter began as an assistant coach at Arrowhead after his prep playing days and went on to win two state summer championships as head coach in 1979 and 2009. His 1975 team lost 9-1 in the state summer championship against Brown Deer. Two years earlier, Gordy Gill was at the helm, with the Warhawks falling 9-2 against Sheboygan Falls for all the marbles in the summer title game.

"I understand why a kid wants to play more, play with better players and get a chance to be seen more," Hamilton athletics director Mike Gosz said. "We basically polled the kids in our baseball programs and asked them what they'd prefer. The vote wasn't conclusive. A lot of them didn't care one way or the other, so at this point we're standing pat with summer, but I don't want to fall behind. I think sooner or later, this is going to change. We've had some parents ask about the possibility of going to spring, and if our numbers declined since players are playing somewhere else, that certainly would make a push toward spring."

Declining numbers is still a question mark, Post 294 Legion or not. Several players from the Lake Country area that are in the Arrowhead District, players like pitchers Ryan Schmitt and Nathan Brown, have been clocked hurling in the upper 80s at showcase events all over the country but have yet to play an inning for their high school.

Their fathers, Brian Schmitt and Kevin Brown, have extensive hardball backgrounds. Brian Schmitt starred at Hartford High School, Waukesha Technical College and the Land O'Lakes. Kevin Brown, a left-handed pitcher, starred at Oconomowoc during coach Pat Neary's heyday before collegiate ventures at Winona State University. Brown also humbled hitters in the Rock River League and the Land O'Lakes.

The younger Schmitt and Brown will be juniors next spring at Arrowhead, recent champions in the Classic 8 Conference under Coach of the Year Vince Mancuso. Those two, along with Oconomowoc standout Logan Wonn, were three of the top pitchers on stage at this Year's Wisconsin Showcase in late June at The Rock Sports Complex in Franklin.

Post 294's acceptance of three Legion baseball teams due to Arrowhead's willingness to make the summer-to-spring switch should open eyes.

How many other communities lacking spring baseball are missing top-flight players already stressing select play? Can they play on a spring team if their immediate community only supports summer? Will a 35-game schedule seem less attractive 65, roughly the amount a player with the spring/Legion option?

Kettle Moraine head coach Brian Adamczyk doesn't foresee this becoming a major problem. At least not in his backyard.

"I don't think it will be an issue with players leaving, at least here," Adamczyk said. "We believe in our players and our program and believe they want to remain a part of it throughout high school, but it will be interesting to see what happens in the next year or two."

Post 294 once sponsored a team in Hartland, but it wasn't a sanctioned Legion team.

"We were called Hartland, but played in the Waukesha Brooks League that had teams from Waukesha, Brookfield, Oconomowoc, but we were not really a Legion team, although we played against them," said Joe Donovan, an Arrowhead graduate and later a power hitter in the Land O'Lakes. "We treated it like Legion."

One of the strange things, or neat things if your birthday fell right, is the fact some players with a year of college under their belt can still play Legion baseball.

One of the top minds helping put together a legitimate Legion team in Hartland, proudly named Hartland Flanagan-Dorn Post 294, is Tim Martins.

"We're going to be under the umbrella of Lake Country Youth Baseball/Softball, joining the Hartland Hawks, Hartland Lady Hawks and Hartland Youth Baseball," Martins said. "The kids in the community will have all the chances they had in the past and more."

Martins said this will give players an opportunity, regardless of where they're enrolled in high school, to play in their community. If they go to Brookfield Academy, and live here, they'll have the chance to play here at their age level with the best 15 to 18 players.

It shouldn't force a second mortgage on the house, either.

"We really want this to be affordable, similar to what families are paying currently," Martins said. "Some of these teams playing in a lot of showcases are playing a whole lot of money. We want our kids to play in a showcase, but we're going to give them elite baseball at an affordable price, also."

Martins, working closely with LCYBS President Dan Hanke and Brian Eskoff, who coached an eighth-grade team in the Hartland Hawks program this summer, agrees there will be challenges, but this isn't something this diligent group put together overnight.

"I really believe in time people in the community will understand this is the best thing that's happened in years," Martins said. "With the Legion teams, we've simply added another scope of ice creme to the cone."

Hanke sees the success and community pride Oconomowoc has had for generations with Legion baseball.

"This is a great chance to show we can come together in this community also from a baseball aspect," Hanke said. "We have talented kids here, and this is another step toward getting them to play together, wearing the same uniform during the summer."

Sean Smith, whose Stiks Academy traveling teams have featured players like Schmitt and Brown in the summer, also felt Legion was a good thing.

"I think it's fantastic Hartland is starting a Legion program," Smith said. "More kids playing more baseball. I couldn't be happier for the Hartland program and future success of the Arrowhead baseball program."

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