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Numbers game: Legion baseball trying to grow

Wessington Springs' Gunnar Brandenburg (7) slides into home plate as Chamberlain's Remington Rossow gets ready for the ball on Monday in Chamberlain. Brandenburg was safe on the play. Wessington Springs' Trever Schmidt is in the foreground. (Ryan Deal / Republic)

Local American Legion baseball has made a resurgence in 2018, but the reason isn’t as complex as one might think.

“We get a lot of interest. We get a lot of calls,” said Dan Sudbeck, the South Dakota Legion Baseball chairman. “But every time you move up a level, in anything, you lose some of your numbers. It’s a matter of trying to maintain numbers.”

Scotland/Menno, Chamberlain and Wessington Springs are among the area teams that each have Legion teams this summer. Even with new non-area teams such as Parker and Fort Pierre, Sudbeck says the state didn’t experience an overall jump in participation this year, keeping around 80 teams.

The Class A and Junior Legion levels each added a team, while the senior level didn’t change. The B level fluctuates the most on a year-to-year basis.

“At the B level, the same schools will have one year where there’s a lot of boys in the classes,” Sudbeck said. “Then they’ll run into a three-year period where there’s a lot of girls in the classes. It’s a numbers game at the B level.”

The male-to-female enrollment is important in determining which towns have enough players to roster a team, but it’s not the only factor.

Kids stop playing at every level and injuries happen, such as this year when a couple of players on Sioux Valley suffered track injuries, meaning they didn’t have enough players to field a team.

While Sudbeck, of Dimock, believes the interest in Legion baseball is there, it’s not always a given that multi-sport athletes choose to play baseball over the summer.

“A lot of the high school coaches push for their student-athletes to go to basketball or football camp, and that puts a lot of pressure on the baseball programs during the summer,” Sudbeck said.

It helps when kids grow up playing baseball every summer and advance through the levels together. That’s the approach Scotland/Menno’s head coach Wyatt Adam took in building the newly created team.

“We had a bunch of Teeners out of Scotland that were getting older, and they couldn’t play Teeners anymore. They didn’t really have any other place to go,” Adam said. “And I had some guys out of Menno, too, and we kind of got together and talked about it with the Scotland Athletic Association and Menno region, and we got a team together.”

Right now, Adam thinks Scotland will have enough Teener players to filter into Legion baseball every year. That said, Adam wants to add a second Teener team in the area in the coming years.

Having multiple youth/Teener teams would help the filtering of players to Legion baseball, evidenced by Nathan Hainy’s confidence.

“We have good numbers down through our sixth-grade class,” said Hainy, the Wessington Springs head coach. “We should be able to sustain a Legion team for a while.”

Despite being new to Legion baseball, Adam and Hainy emphasize they don’t have a disadvantage. It’s been about a dozen years since Springs has had a Legion team, but the club had a Junior team last year.

“Most of our kids play on the high school team in the spring, so we kind of rolled into it ready to go,” Hainy said.

Adding more teams, especially on the western part of the state, positively impacts the regional tournaments. With three Class A regions and seven Class B regions, there isn’t always an equal amount of teams in each region, which leads to unbalanced tournaments. (Eight teams qualify for the state tournament in each division, with a host team in both classes qualifying. In Class A, two teams per region qualify, plus a wild card team, while Class B takes seven region champions to the state tournament.)

However, Sudbeck isn’t concerned about the year-to-year totals. He’s more focused on the long-term growth. He’s proud that Legion baseball now pushes 80-82 teams every year, compared to the mid-1960s when he first arrived.

“I guess I would be hopeful that in the next 10 years it will have continued to grow,” Sudbeck said. “Big numbers? Probably not. But if we can gain one to two teams a year, I feel that is a positive influence on the program.”

But Sudbeck, Adam and Hainy know that Legion baseball is bigger than the game and growth of the organization. They all stressed the importance Legion baseball has on teaching student-athletes how to be model citizens and contribute in society.

“It keeps them active. It keeps them out of trouble, gives them something to do,” Adam said.