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Class B Legion baseball hanging on; Class A holding steady

Corsica's Tom Harris, left, gets a secondary lead at first base after being held by Parkston's Spencer Lucas in a Legion baseball game Tuesday in Corsica. (Aaron Saunders/Republic)

Joe Schlimgen has been playing and watching baseball in South Dakota since the 1960s.

Schlimgen played for the Mitchell Legion team more than 50 years ago and has been an umpire of American Legion baseball games in the state for the last 26 years.

He's seen baseball change in many aspects with one in particular. Schlimgen said the amount of kids and teams that play Legion has declined a bit in all the years he has been involved with Legion. He said the reason things have changed has a lot to do with money. In Schlimgen's opinion, some of the small towns don't have the money to fund the programs like the larger towns in the state.

"When I played the American Legion post here, Mitchell paid all the expenses. They bought the bats, balls, paid the umpires and every three years we would have new uniforms," Schlimgen said. "Fred Brown, Harve Johnston, Bill Timmins and Don McDaniel were very involved Legion members, and they made sure kids did not have to pay for anything."

Schlimgen also said that kids' interests in other sports and their need to work to pay for school or help out their families may have a lot to do with what he sees as declining numbers in some areas.

Schlimgen said teams in bigger cities in the state will always have Legion baseball, but teams in smaller towns have evaporated and will continue to do so as time goes on.

"The expense of running the program right now is probably greater than it was when I played," Schlimgen said. "I just hate to see kids not be able to play because their parents couldn't afford it. When I was younger we had kids who didn't play, but not because they couldn't afford it. ...

"It seemed like every little town around here had a team. ESD baseball was the conference then and towns like Tyndall and Howard were in the conference and played against teams like Aberdeen, Huron, Mobridge and Mitchell. But a lot of those towns don't have teams anymore."

This year, there are 52 senior Legion baseball teams in the state. Of those teams, 16 are in Class A and 36 are Class B teams.

Including junior Legion squads, the total number of Legion teams in the state this year is 69. Last year, there were 59 combined junior and senior teams -- with 52 senior Legion teams and seven junior Legion squads. Town or city size is the determining the factor in whether or not a Legion baseball team competes in the Class A or B level.

Dan Sudbeck, the chairman of the South Dakota Legion Baseball Commission, said there hasn't been a big increase or dip in the total number of teams over the last couple of years but noticed there is a decrease in Class B teams from five years ago. Five years ago, there were between 45 and 50 teams at that level and in the last five years the number of teams is around 35 to 40, according to Sudbeck, who attributed the trend to declining family size.

"We don't have a lot of families that have eight to 10 kids. When I grew up, there were families that had a dozen kids. Even five years ago you would see families with six to eight kids, but you don't see that as much anymore," he said.

The Dimock native added that while some Class B teams are having difficulties sustaining programs, the Class A teams are holding steady with room for possible growth in the future. Sudbeck diagnosed the problem for Class B teams as a sheer numbers game.

"In small communities, you might have one or two classes in a high school where it is predominantly girls or more boys. Sometimes in the small towns it can change over the course of a few years," Sudbeck said. "We are kind of a victim of where we live. When you live in a sparsely populated state, things like this happen."

Sudbeck said he believes that American Legion baseball in the state is as solid as it has been in a long time.

Playing in new places

Three area teams that fielded senior Legion teams in 2012 did not return for play this season. Those teams were Wessington Springs, Mount Vernon Post 210 and Scotland -- with all three of those teams competing in Class B. Players from those teams who wished to continued to play Legion baseball are required to play for the next nearest town or city that has a team.

One player affected by the termination of the Legion baseball program in his town was Deric Denning. The Mount Vernon native was hoping to play for Post 210 but was forced to look elsewhere to play this summer. Denning opted to play for the Corsica Legion team in order to play with his best friend, Kade Rexwinkel.

"Mount Vernon has had a pretty good baseball tradition for a while," Denning said. "But really there was no other choice."

Denning could have also decided to play for Parkston like fellow Mount Vernon native Brian Vermeulen. Joining Denning on the Corsica Legion team are Tye Harris, of Plankinton, Branson Tolliver, of Wagner, and Daniel Van Zee, of New Holland.

Corsica Legion coach Bob Bamberg is happy to have his players from other towns, saying that players from surrounding towns without a baseball team might help his team survive.

"Personally, I feel like Legion baseball in our small communities is in trouble," Bamberg said. "It is probably healthy in the bigger towns, like Mitchell and Sioux Falls. Every year it is a little bit of a worry for us to have kids, especially coming into the next few years because our numbers are a little down.

"Hopefully we will get some more kids from Plankinton, New Holland or Mount Vernon."

Parkston Post 194 has been another team area players have joined.

Along with Vermeulen, Mount Vernon's Cameron Deinert and Menno's Dylan Ware also play for Parkston, which made its return to Legion Baseball for the first time in two years this season.

"We didn't have enough kids the past couple of years, but I think now there are more kids coming up, so we will have a Legion team for the next three to four years," first-year head coach Sterling Kinneberg said. "The Legion team was probably going strong. When I was growing up we always had a Legion team."

Despite Parkston not having a Legion program the past two years, it had a winning tradition. The Parkston Legion team won titles in 1972, 1977, 2005 and 2007.

Kinneberg is coaching alongside Jeff Harris and Chris Welch, adding he is looking forward to learning from Harris and is there to help the kids get better.

Keeping it consistent

Chamberlain Legion baseball coach Brock Sundall said Chamberlain -- a Class B team -- has fielded a team every year since the early 1990s -- a time when Sundall was on the team.

He said the key to sustaining the longevity of a small-town Legion team is having help from the community and being able to adapt to what you have.

"The number of (Class) B teams fluctuates every year with small town baseball," said Sundall. "You have certain programs that have teams on a regular basis and other places that have teams for a couple of years, then take time off and come back."

Sundall said his team only had five kids who were senior Legion age -- players who are at least 17 years old -- last year. He said he brought up players from the teener baseball squad to help fill out the roster.

"You want to put kids in the position to fare well," Sundall said. "The kids that we have brought up have played on the varsity level in high school as well. They have done well in Legion play because they played against the same kids in spring ball."

Another team that has adapted to the times is the McCook/Miner baseball team. The squad, which competes at the Class B level, consists of players from Canova, Howard, Salem and Monstrose.

Canova, Howard and Salem all had separate baseball teams in the past before joining to form the McCook/Miner Legion baseball team.

Jon Forster, who just completed his first season with the Dakota State University Trojans, is playing for McCook/Miner this summer.

"Legion is pretty amazing," Forster said. "I had the chance to watch Canova growing up because it was only 10 minutes away. ...They always had great teams. They made it to state all those years I was watching them and since I have played for McCook/Miner, we have gone to state as well."

This summer, Forster has a jam-packed baseball schedule as he is coaching 13-14 teener baseball and 7-8 pee wee and also gives private lessons. One aspect that is new for Forster this year is he is playing with one of the players he coaches. Colin Cleveland, who recently turned 15, plays on Forster's teener team and plays alongside him for the McCook/Miner Legion team.

Forster said his Legion team has 10 players who are Legion age, but there are some players who were brought up.

"At times it is a little hard playing with kids that are much younger because it is such a big gap of plain, old experience," Forster said. "But we really try to work with them and help them improve and get better."