Bob Asmussen | Pitching in: Champaign native relishes role with Little League

May 7—Forty years after he suited up for a team sponsored by Champaign police, John Phillips is again a part of the C-U Kiwanis Little League experience. And helping it grow.

The Champaign native currently serves as the commissioner of the Suited League. He is also in charge of arranging sponsors for the teams, a role he inherited from longtime volunteer Greg Fink.

"It's very rewarding," the 53-year-old Philips said. "The kids that are playing it are loving it."

The games are the same as when Phillips played in the early 1980s. What has changed are the numbers of participants.

"There were 40 or 50 teams," he said.

"The Twin City Tournament was a big deal. It took a month."

But travel baseball, where organized teams compete in tournaments across the country, put a big dent in the local Little League numbers.

"It's kind of sad," Phillips said. "I love Little League."

His son JP plays for the Clay Dooley team. He is also part of a travel team.

"Little League's our priority," Phillips said.

John coaches JP's Little League team.

"I'm one of the older dads out there," he said.

Before his team takes the field, the players gather around the coach for words of encouragement.

"I always say, 'Hit, run, have fun,'" Phillips said. "I want it to be fun. I want to see kids out there having a great time with their buddies from town."

Players are welcome to try different positions.

"One of the kids said, 'Hey Coach, I want to play third (base). I've never played third.' And off he went to the hot corner.

"That's what we are here for," Phillips said.

Solid foundation

Champaign-Urbana's weather can make it difficult to get all the games in. Fortunately, the C-U Little League has a man with a plan.

Lindy Loschen is in charge of all the fields.

"He has done a fantastic job," Phillips said. "He makes sure that everything is set up properly. Checks the field before rain and after rain. It makes everyone's job so much easier. He knows what he's doing."

The Suited teams use four primary venues: Champaign's First Fed Field, Peter McFarland Field and Robeson Field and Urbana's Yankee Ridge.

"Every game has been fantastic," Philips said.

Select games are again being aired on WDWS (1400-AM) with every team being on at least two broadcasts. The Twin City tournament semifinals and final will be on the air, too.

The Suited season started April 15 and ends in late June. Then, district play starts in early July. C-U is hosting a district tournament for 12U and the 10U state championship.

Phillips praises the help of the C-U Little League organizers: Kyle Emkes, Greg Daley, Brad Leeb, Darren Powell, Julie Palermo and McFarland.

In C-U, the teams used to be split into four groups: Champaign East, Champaign West, Urbana and First String. For the first time, they are now playing as one league this season.

"I think it's going to make Champaign-Urbana stronger when we're going to compete at the next level in district play, substate and state play," Phillips said.

Joining forces gives the C-U Kiwanis Little League a better chance to make a deep run during the postseason, with the ultimate goal of reaching the prestigious Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

The past two summers, Phillips coached a Champaign East team that advanced to state.

"It's been one of the most fun experiences I've had, not only as a parent but as a coach, to watch these kids play," Phillips said.

JP Phillips, who is 12, is in his final year of Little League and hoping for a banner finish.

"If you win state when you are 12, you get to go play on ESPN," Phillips said.

Other communities similar in size to C-U field one team for the postseason competition. The local team is now on a level playing field.

"I'm hoping with this merger in the next few years we are going to be super competitive, because there are lot of good baseball players in Champaign-Urbana," Phillips said.

Just as important, growing the number of players locally.

Post-pandemic, Phillips said, "numbers have really skyrocketed for baseball, which really excites me."

While the C-U Suited League has eight teams, the Farm League, one level below, includes 15 teams. And the Peanut League has 18.

"I think we're moving in the right direction," Phillips said. "We're not where we'd love to be, but more and more kids are coming out. It's moving in a positive direction."

The Suited League has "tons of sponsors."

"I got on the phone and started calling people I knew and asking," Phillips said.

There are legacy sponsors that have been involved for years, now joined by new companies.

"I hope they stay around for a long time," Phillips said.

Phillips plans to stay involved with Little League in the future after he is no longer coaching his son's team.

"I love to see what we're building," he said. "I'm here in any capacity they want me to be. Sometimes it's easier when you're not a coach and you can be unbiased. Just be here to help."

Champaign proud

John Philllips was born in Carbondale. He moved with his family at age 5 to Champaign and lived near Centennial High School, his alma mater.

He went to college at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, then spent 15 years in the Chicagoland area.

The Phillips family moved back to Champaign in 2011. John and wife Reagan have three children: daughter Reese is a freshman at the University of Mississippi, daughter Campbell is a sophomore at St. Thomas More, and JP attends St. Matthew Catholic School.

When he isn't helping with Little League, John Phillips manages local rental properties he owns with a partner.

"No two days are alike," he said.

He is a mortgage banker by trade.