EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first story in our ‘Welcome To The League’ series, which profiles young players across the South Central League and their adjustments to amateur baseball
TABOR — It feels like a legion game.
Mace Merkwan is throwing from the mound down the third base line before a home baseball game last Thursday evening.
Joey Slama is stretching.
Christian Uecker is standing with a small group of teammates outside the dugout.
Josh Schmidt is chatting with another group of teammates inside the dugout.
It’s not moments before an American Legion game, however. No, the group of players are preparing for their first amateur baseball game of the season — their second with the Tabor Bluebirds, the same team they grew up watching.
Most of this group of young players has spent most of their lives playing together, and that experience proved invaluable when they jumped up to amateur ball last summer, they said.
“So I know a lot of these guys already, and my brother (Cole) has been playing for a while,” Uecker said before last Thursday’s non-league game against Mount Vernon.
All it takes is a brief glance in the Tabor dugout to see just how young the Bluebirds are.
Guys like Beau Rothschadl, Bryce Scieszinski, Schmidt, Slama, Merkwan and Uecker all played legion baseball for Tabor last summer (they also won a high school baseball title in 2018). Tanner Van Driel was also part of that group, but he plays amateur ball for Lesterville.
They’ve been through the fire together; it’s a brotherhood — as Slama put it.
“I’ve played with all these guys most of my life, so we have a really good chemistry together and we’ve always had fun,” said Uecker, a 2019 Bon Homme High School graduate.
Many of the players in that group also made their amateur debuts last summer. Amateur rules allow legion players to suit up for amateur teams, with restrictions (they can’t pitch until their legion season is completed).
“It was definitely a different experience,” Rothschadl, also a 2019 Bon Homme graduate, said. “You go from being one of the oldest guys to one of the youngest guys, by a lot.”
Still, it helped that they were in it together, they’ll tell you.
And the fact that they got their early taste of amateur baseball last year only helps them for this summer, when they’ll only have amateur baseball.
“It was a lot of fun just to get experience this level,” said Slama, also a 2019 Bon Homme graduate.
“Even just those couple appearances, we gained a lot of experience because it’s a higher level than legions.”
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Like many in his group of teammates, Uecker grew up following the Bluebirds.
He remembers running around the ballpark with his friends or even hanging around the dugout. He remembers his father, Corey, a former amateur player, talking about the days when his sons Cole and Christian could suit up for the hometown team.
There were plenty of pearls of wisdom along the way, as well.
“My dad always used to tell me, it’s a lot different up here, especially hitting wise,” Uecker said.
“In high school, you would have inexperienced guys out there, and in amateurs, you have a 30-year-old who knows how to work the plate,” Uecker added.
Slama and Rothschadl said they agree with that thought. They tend to see more off-speed pitches in amateur baseball, and they’re typically facing current or former college players with plenty of experience on the mound.
“Everybody is hitting spots,” Rothschadl said.
With that in mind, Uecker, Slama and Rothschadl were all asked if they remember their first amateur at-bat last season:
* Uecker: “I do, actually. It was against Lesterville, and to be honest, I think I struck out.”
* Slama: “I think I struck out, and on three pitches, too.”
* Rothschadl: “I hit a double off the wall. And then I didn’t get a hit the rest of the year.”
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If not for the new Yankton Lakers, which is comprised of primarily recent American Legion players, Tabor would boast the youngest roster in the South Central League.
The Bluebirds, though, also feature guys like Chris Sutera (player/manager), Dean Kaul, Chad Hovorka, Logan Tycz and Austin Koch, who all have plenty of amateur experience.
In time, the young group will get there, but for now they’re just thankful they got some time with the Bluebirds last season — otherwise jumping right into amateurs this summer could be daunting.
“I feel like those couple of appearances did help, but these early games will be the big test,” Slama said.
Are the young guys primed for a long amateur career?
“I’d say so, yeah,” Uecker said, with a smile. “I can’t see leaving these guys any time soon.”
Two years ago, Uecker’s father came out of retirement to play alongside Cole, so does the younger Uecker envision that happening for him?
“I don’t know if he’ll make a comeback. He’d probably have to get himself in shape,” Uecker added, with another smile.
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