ROANOKE – There is an old adage of April showers bring May flowers. As that relates to prep baseball, it translated into Bill Zeman putting in countless hours upon hours doing whatever he could to get keep the Roanoke-Benson baseball diamond ready for camps, practices or games whether they be held in the fall, spring or summer. From raking the infield, home plate and the pitcher’s mound to mowing the outfield to sweeping out the dugouts to watering the diamond when it needed if there were stretches of dryness to lining the first and third base paths and batter’s box.
Simply put, the 65-year-old Zeman put his blood, sweat and tears into maintaining it. Oh, by the way, he did a little coaching and tons of instructing as well.
All of those efforts will be richly rewarded as the diamond will be christened Bill Zeman Field this weekend after Saturday’s game against Ridgeview.
“It’s kind of emotional,” he admitted. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine having the field named after me. You never set out for that. You just want to say hey I want kids who want to come out here and play and know what they’re doing. The way you get kids out is to put out a winner. Your goal is to put out a program. That’s what you start out at. A guy as crazy as it is thinks it should happen, might happen it’s kind of humbling.”
Zeman, a 1994 inductee into the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, was in charge for 36 years. He won a total of 693 games, made four Elite Eight appearances and captured a state championship in ’95, a team that went 30-0. He retired after the ’14 season where he won the last of his eight regional titles, including at least one in four different decades.
“I miss game day. I miss the people, the players, the umpires, the opposing coaches,” said Zeman. “I miss it, but the reality is the time had come to give it to somebody else.”
R-B was one of the few schools to play a fall schedule, which served as a prelude to the spring.
“There’s pros and cons,” Zeman explained. “The pro was you get a chance to play because the weather was so ideal. The con was when we played somebody in the fall we could not play them in the spring. You could only play 30 games. If you played 12 in the fall, that only gave us 18 in the spring. It’s hard to get into a rhythm trying to stretch out 18 games. It was kind of a hassle, but it had its merits.”
R-B and neighboring Lowpoint-Washburn agreed to form a cooperative in ‘89 and that lasted almost a quarter century before it dissolved in ‘13.
“I had to think long and hard initially,” said Zeman. “The first year, there were some trials and tribulations. The reactions were typical for the R-B kids. They did not want one of those (L-W) guys to come in and to take their position. I really had to try to make it work. We were trying to get the nine best players out there. You had to prove to me you were one of the nine. In a short amount of time, they became close.”
The two schools re-entered a co-op in ’17.
On multiple occasions in the spring, even as they served as host of a regional, R-B would be forced to bus to play an opponent on the latter’s field due to unplayable conditions on the Rockets’ diamond.
That all changed in the spring of ‘91 when Zeman spearheaded and orchestrated a project to install sod, which greatly reduced the number of rainouts.
“It was a battle,” said Zeman, who added more a struggle financially than anything else. “They thought I wanted it for all the wrong reasons. The whole idea was to cinder the dirt areas to raise it and help it drain. Every time it rained an inch on Thursday you did not play until Tuesday. It took a while. Money was tight back then. There was a lot of help. It was not just me.”
Since then, both dugouts have been upgraded, a press box/concession stand, fencing, scoreboard, backstop, batting cage and visitor’s bullpen have all been installed. All of those improvements have made R-B’s diamond one of the best particularly for a school with an enrollment of just 170 students and sans a booster club.
“Now, you look at it, is there anything prettier,” pointed out Zeman. “I always wanted a place the kids can be proud of. That’s what my hope was. It was about a 10-year plan.”
A lot of larger schools would be envious to play on a field the caliber of R-B’s.
“Considering the size of our school and the size of our towns, I would match it up with anybody,” stated Zeman. “They might have a few more amenities. You run a small school, you do not have a lot of money.”
He will throw out the first pitch Saturday at 9:45, 15 minutes prior to the 10 a.m. start. The ceremony will immediately follow the game. In the case of inclement weather, it will be moved indoors to Dick Broers Gymnasium.
Notes: Zeman is a native of Carol Stream, a western Chicago suburb. He graduated from Glenbard North and Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. While at EIU, he did his student teaching at Effingham under then-coach Ken Jenkins, who later went to Putnam County, like R-B and L-W, a fellow member of the Tri-County Conference. Zeman came to R-B in the fall of ‘76 and taught driver’s education and health. Besides baseball, he also served as the sophomore boys’ basketball coach, varsity coach for one season, co-coach of the girls’ varsity for a season, varsity girls’ coach for one season and athletic director for nearly three decades.