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July 09, 2013 | 02:30 PMThe Lake Geneva and Genoa City Legion programs can't reach an agreement on whether to allow players to choose which team they play for, and players, coaches and even the state Legion commissioner are fed up.
However, no resolution will apparently be reached this summer.
For years, each community had its own Legion program. Then, in an attempt to work together and put the best possible product on the field, the two merged into Geneva-Genoa. After a four-year experiment, Lake Geneva wanted its own program again.
Genoa City was cool with the move, allowing Lake Geneva guys, most of whom attend Badger High School, to represent their hometown on Junior and Senior Legion squads. However, dissension arose back in January when Lake Geneva and Genoa City combined to pen a letter to the Wisconsin American Legion Baseball commissioner.
It claims players, after growing up playing baseball for one community, were being "forced to switch to another program in order to be in accordance with the rules." The rules state that you must play for your host high school. Lake Geneva's is Badger, and Genoa City's is Wilmot Union High School. If you attend Badger, even if you live in Genoa City, you must have a waiver signed by coaches from both teams to play for your new team.
The letter further states that players were forced to switch programs "simply because an adult would not sign a piece of paper." The letter claims if players are forced to play somewhere they don't want to, they will simply quit legion baseball because they want to play with their friends.
After several more emails and letters from both Legion sides to American Legion Commissioner Roger Mathison, he said it was just too much. It was May, and the legion season was only a month away. Therefore, Mathison made this ruling:
"The situation seemed to escalate with every call and email, with the season fast approaching," Mathison said in an email to me July 6. "I finally ruled that in an effort to cool tempers that for this year I would waive the rules and allow the players to play for whichever team they wished in order to get the season under way and get the players on the field."
These "tempers" run deep. Lake Geneva coach and Legion representative Rick Schiltz went on the record last week in a phone conversation.
"If they're not going to abide by the rules, there's no sense having a Lake Geneva Legion baseball team," he said.
What Schiltz conveniently failed to mention is that Genoa City may not have done anything wrong.
According to Genoa City coach and Legion representative Curt Andresen, who sat down with me Sunday morning, the proper procedures were followed when seven Badger kids requested to play for Genoa City.
"What Rick said is not totally true because the commissioner ruled the kids can play for Genoa City," Andresen said. "As far as the waivers, Lake Geneva had them in their hands and refused to sign them. It's for the kids. We probably would've lost a Legion team if the kids stayed with their base teams. It's hard enough right now keeping teams, especially down here. It's really sad."
Andresen said a combined program with four teams is the best way to go.
"It was working," he said. "Numbers will go up and down every year. Kids have football, soccer, work, they want to not do anything in the summer. It's also helping the Badger High School program."
Currently, Genoa City has a 19U Senior Legion and a 16U Junior Legion. Lake Geneva has a 17U and 16U. The "U" means you can't be older than that age to be on the team. A 15-year-old can play 19U if he or she is good enough.
"A combined program is better because you're pulling from a larger area," Andresen said. "Then, we would have to waive kids from Wilmot to sign here, because they play Genoa City Little League."
Ultimately, Schiltz seems to have the best of intentions. His focus is teaching the younger guys.
"If we could work together, we could divide guys up like it should be," he said. "I just want to teach kids and get them at-bats."
Mathison said in a letter to Andresen that the issue must be resolved next summer.
"The purpose of American Legion baseball is to encourage young men to play the game and learn from it," he stated. "Teams will have to realize there will be transfer requests from time to time, and not to deny the opportunity to players who have legitimate reason to wish to play for another team provided the accepting teams properly report the enrollment figures."
I initially put a blog together on www.lakegenevanews.net under "Mike's Blog," which detailed Schiltz's concerns. This opened the flood gates. Fifteen comments ensued, ranging from parents complaining about politics in area baseball to people claiming Genoa City provides more advanced instruction than Lake Geneva.
Genoa City Senior Legion head coach Gary Cukla, a varsity assistant at Wilmot, said his program is superior, and that's why kids come from Lake Geneva to play there.
"Genoa City Legion has been around for many years and has put on the field a very well-respected baseball team and program," Cukla said. "It is able to do this with good coaching and very good ballplayers. This only can start when these same kids play in the Genoa City Little League program all through their younger years. They attend Badger, Wilmot and Westosha Central, and these players are looking to play more and compete at the highest level that they can. If a town does not have a legion team, we are always open to have them join us to also further their careers in baseball."
While all sides want to abide by the rules, the general consensus is to keep kids on the field.
"If a kid doesn't want to play for me, why wouldn't I want to sign a waiver to let him play elsewhere," Andresen said. "Kids are dropping out of baseball a lot, and it's sad. All the seniors from the high school team didn't want to play this summer. They were moving on in life and wanted to do other things. It hurt us, but we moved on."
This year, luckily, thanks to an exodus of players from Lake Geneva to Genoa City, all four squads have enough players to have a full team. With kids having to work and go on vacations, it's the more the merrier. And a lack of players can jeopardize the program, and it's bad for the American Legion.
Genoa City's 16U is comprised of mostly Badger kids, with a few Wilmot guys, and the Senior Legion has guys from Badger, Wilmot, Shoreland Lutheran, Delavan-Darien and even Illinois. Lake Geneva's clubs are strictly Badger kids.
From all accounts I've heard, and trust me, I've talked to everyone, it sounds like Genoa City is the superior program in terms of skill development. One source said Genoa City may teach an outfielder proper angles for a diving catch, while Lake Geneva stresses the fundamentals of just throwing strikes or sticking to fastballs.
Through July 8, both Genoa City teams have winning records. The 16U is the defending state champion. Lake Geneva's 17U is 3-14, and I saw limited numbers at their game against Milwaukee last week, an 18-4 loss. Tom Ritzman went 4-for-4 to lead the team, and Derek Denecke and Donald Schnurer each had hits. However, Schnurer and Bryan Nugent both played out of positions, or at least played where they probably won't play next year as seniors at Badger High School.
Regardless of their record, you can tell the players are passionate about the game, having fun and learning how to improve. Andresen reiterated the kids should have the final choice.
"We want these kids to play no matter where they want to play," he said. "We're trying to put out a good product down here in Genoa City. Until Lake Geneva changes its level of competitiveness at the lower levels, we will continue to get Lake Geneva kids in our Little League program. We're not trying to take every kid that's out there."
So will these two sides ever play nice?
"Right now, I don't know how we can work together," Andresen chuckled. "All you can do is put your product out there and let the parents and kids decide."
I've talked to both sides, the state and various coaches and players, and have come to this conclusion — keep it about the kids.
Andresen said joining Genoa City's program costs around $250, and that is hard-earned money coming from parents that want their kids to be happy and to thrive in life.
It's in the best interest of the American Legion to allow as many kids play as possible. Mathison's ruling was very fair, and it was done for the right reasons.
Although it will be hard and will take a serious effort, coaches must check their egos at the door and support players. Think of the kids who never see the field during the high school season. How are they going to get better? All they have is summer ball. Once you kill that passion, kids may never get it back.
I would like to see a combined program once again, with four or even five teams playing home games at Jonas Field in Lake Geneva or at Krisik Park in Genoa City. Keep the Junior Legions in Lake Geneva and older kids in Genoa City.
There's plenty of talent to go around, and a combined effort will make for the most competitive product in the long run. Also, this can streamline and make sure buddies that have played together for a decade stay on the same team.
Whenever I talk to Badger players about baseball, they bring up their affinity for Genoa City baseball and playing with their teammates since first or second grade.
There will always be Legion baseball, and kids will always love the game and play it for the right reasons. It's not about the desires of certain coaches who may be reluctant to change. It's about that 7-year-old kid that sits in the stands at every Senior Legion game with his buddies and stares in awe after his favorite player hits a home run.
That kid dreams of the day he can slug that little white ball 350 feet or more. Coaches, I implore you, think about that kid the next time you want to allow your pride to take over. It's not worth it.