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How one longtime area coach brought summer college baseball back to Peoria

How one longtime area coach brought summer college baseball back to Peoria

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PEORIA — The 2-I League is ready to launch as longtime area baseball coach and scout and pro hockey advocate Mike Olson has his eye on a new local sports mission.

Bring true summer college baseball to Peoria.

The Peoria Merchants, who once played in what was the Kickapoo Valley League, were re-built last summer as an independent, college-players only team.

Stuck in the height of the pandemic, they managed 15 games. Baby steps. Now they've founded a new league for 2021 and have a 25-game schedule planned.

The 2-I League — which includes Peoria, Quad Cities (Davenport, Iowa) 76ers, Rock Island Independents and Whiteside County (Sterling) Wildcats — is a wood bat circuit for college players only.

"It's been a project of mine, a mission, to bring back pure college summer baseball," Olson said. "This is it. The Merchants are a roster of all college players, including four from NCAA Division I programs. There are no high school kids, no post-college adults on our teams. It's all current college players."

The Merchants open with a doubleheader at 1 p.m. Saturday at Dozer Park. They will play a Peoria Sunday Morning League all-star team.

Tickets are $2 for adults, $1 for students. Kids pre-school age and younger get in free. Military veterans and their families get in free, as do all current and former Sunday Morning League players.

Newly elected Peoria mayor Rita Ali will throw out the first pitch. Peoria vocalist Jackie Watkins will sing the national anthem.

There will be team pictures and sandlot teams on the field accompanying the Merchants.

Olson is the Merchants general manager. The team's manager is Dunlap High School assistant baseball coach Dave Drake.

The Merchants roster is full of players with Peoria-area prep baseball on their resume.

There are four D-I players, including C.J. Lewis (Toledo), Sam Brace (Alabama-Birmingham), Derek Botaletto (Western Illinois) and Collin Drake (Western Illinois).

There are also players from ICC and NCAA D-III programs.

Most of the roster are players who were prominent in the central Illinois high school ranks and have moved up to college careers.

Brace played at Metamora, Lewis at Normal West and Drake at Dunlap.

Former Richwoods shortstop Nick Terrell is rostered, off a season at Ripon College in which he earned all-conference honors and led his team in nine offensive categories. On Tuesday night, he was selected to the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) All-Region third team. The teams are voted on by members of the ABCA and the process is led by the ABCA NCAA Division-III All-America committee.

Former Washington High School players Ryan Bredeson (Eureka College), a lefty pitcher from the Panthers 2018 regional champs who posted a 1.91 ERA in 2019 is on the Merchants team along with Luke Markunas (Heartland College), and Brody Reed (ICC).

Limestone High School products Zach Otten (ICC) and Mikey Dunne (Lincoln Land) are on board, the latter the son of Tom Dunne and nephew of Mike Dunne and a 2019 Journal Star Baseball All-Star Team selection.

There are players like Karter Hostetler (Morton), who helped the Potters to the IHSA Class 3A title in 2018 and a 27-9 record in 2019, Ben Nofsinger (Peoria Christian) and Jimmy Butler (Illinois Wesleyan, and the son of former Rivermen team president John Butler).

There is righty pitcher Shane Mills (Havana) and infielder Ivan Tejeda (Dunlap) and infielder Jack Schaffer (Metamora).

For Olson, the project harkens back to the days of the Peoria Pacers, who operated in the long-since defunct Central Illinois Collegiate League from 1963-84, playing alongside teams like the Galesburg Pioneers and Bloomington Bobcats.

The Pacers yielded the Peoria landscape to the Peoria Chiefs when pro baseball arrived nearly 40 years ago.

Now Olson sees a college summer wood bat league as a void his Merchants can fill.

"We played only 15 games last year and didn't start until July because of COVID," Olson said. "So 2021 is really our starting point. We have a roster with 19 former area high school kids, all playing college baseball.

"We are trying to make this a place for college players to develop, work on their skills and get better at the game. I look at it as a showcase for local college talent in the summer."

He's doing it on a budget of $7,200. Players contribute, with position players required to pay $150 for the season and pitchers $100.

They'll play at Dozer Park, and at Douglas Park in Quad Cities and on college fields at Eureka and Augustana.

They have an ever-expanding schedule online, with a July 20 double-header against Rock Island, at Eureka College, just added. Most of the dates are double-headers on Saturdays or Sundays. The season runs through Aug. 8.

"I'm trying to do with the Peoria Merchants what my dad (Peoria Rivermen Hall of Fame inductee Mark Olson) did with starting up Peoria pro hockey back in the day," Olson said. "We played outdoors our first year, got beat 15-1 in our first game using local guys.

"But we brought it along and built up the game."

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