BILLINGS — From the possibility of no season being played because of the coronavirus pandemic, to the start of the postseason with the Eastern A District tournament beginning Thursday at Pirtz Field, local American Legion coaches and players feel blessed and appreciate the opportunity to hear the umpire say, “Play ball!”
“We are really lucky,” said Billings Blue Jays pitcher Reagan Walker, a junior to be at Billings Senior.
The Laurel Dodgers began tryouts on May 4 after receiving the OK from the city after Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced Montana would begin the first phase of reopening after a stay-at-home order that was started to help slow the spread of COVID-19 was lifted.
“It’s been a crazy season,” said Dodgers coach Doug Studiner. “The kids all throughout the season are very happy they are playing baseball.”
The Eastern District was split into two sub-districts this year, with Froid, Glasgow, Glendive, and Wolf Point making up the North and the Billings Blue Jays, Billings Cardinals, Laurel and Miles City placed in the South.
Glendive won the North sub-district, and was followed by Froid, Glasgow and Wolf Point in the standings.
The Blue Jays won the South sub-district. Miles City was second, the Cardinals third and Dodgers fourth.
First pitch at the double-elimination Eastern A tourney is scheduled for noon Thursday when Miles City battles Glasgow. The other games Thursday are: 2:30 p.m., Glendive vs. Laurel; 5 p.m., Blue Jays vs. Wolf Point and 7:30 p.m., Froid vs. the Cardinals.
The tourney will conclude on Sunday. The first game on Sunday is set for 10 a.m. The championship is scheduled for 12:30 and the if-necessary game would follow at 3 p.m. The top two teams at the Eastern A District tourney advance to the state tournament Aug. 6-9 in Lewistown.
The Cardinals are the host team.
The Blue Jays finished with a 29-10 overall record and were 9-3 in conference games.
“We are ready to go and have been doing everything we can to be ready for it,” said Blue Jays shortstop Jessen West, who will be a junior at Billings Senior in the fall.
“It’s been good. We are molding together towards the end and it’s really working for us. Everyone is getting along.”
The Blue Jays feel especially fortunate to have earned the No. 1 seed out of the South sub-district, especially with the tourney being held in Billings.
“It’s pretty special. We are the No. 1 seed at our house,” said Walker. “We are pretty confident. We have to pitch, hit, make plays and play baseball.”
First-year Blue Jays coach Calvin Bjorgum said pitching is the strength of his club.
The top three starting pitchers for the Blue Jays are Lance Schaaf, Walker, and Davis Mosier. Relievers Gunner Thompson and Hunter Eliason are also key.
“One-hundred percent, pitching is the reason we are where we are right now,” Bjorgum said.
Bjorgum played for the Billings Royals, a Class AA team, from 2015-2016. He was on the Blue Jays in 2013-14. Some of the Blue Jays players will advance to Class AA and play for the Royals. Bjorgum said his team is focused.
“These guys are ready to go,” he said. “They definitely want to go out and prove something, especially being a feeder team.”
The Cardinals and Miles City both finished with 6-6 conference records. Cardinals third-year coach Sam Paterson said the Cardinals and Mavericks were 2-2 against each other this year. Miles City earned the No. 2 seed out of the South because of the runs scored in conference games tiebreaker, Paterson said.
The Cardinals were 22-17 overall.
“We are really excited. We feel like we have a really good shot,” said Paterson. “We have quite a few returnees back. We’ve had a really good year and played some really good games and competed and feel good.”
Max Murphy leads the Cardinals in batting average and RBIs. Hunter Doyle is another threat in the Cardinals’ lineup. Pitchers Jaden Sanchez, Jaiden Turner and Kolten Wynia have all been effective said Paterson.
The Dodgers were 17-21 overall and 3-9 in league. However, Laurel finished the season strong, going 7-3 in its last 10 games.
“We struggled for a long time and the last 12-15 games we figured it out,” said Studiner. “We set a goal to get better by the end of the season and are looking forward to the end of the season.”
Laurel opens against the North sub-district No. 1 seed Glendive. The Dodgers split four games with the Blue Devils, with each team sweeping a twin bill on their home field.
“They have some quality arms,” said Studiner of Glendive. “Brent Diegel is a good coach and always has his kids prepared. It will be a good contest.”
Richie Cortese, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound pitcher and first baseman, leads the Dodgers offensively. Team captain and shortstop Keagan Campbell is “the heartbeat of our team,” said Studiner.
Cortese, Kayne Johnson and Issac Nieto are the Dodgers’ top pitchers.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how we compete,” said Studiner. “We’ve been working hard. … We are thankful for the opportunity to be out competing. We didn’t know how it would go. It’s been fun and crazy. The kids have come together and are looking forward to it.”
Eastern A District Tournament
At Pirtz Field
Game 1: Noon, Miles City vs. Glasgow
Game 2: 2:30 p.m., Glendive vs. Laurel
Game 3: 5 p.m., Billings Blue Jays vs. Wolf Point
Game 4: 7:30 p.m., Froid vs. Billings Cardinals
Game 5: 11 a.m., L1 vs. L2
Game 6: 1:30 p.m., L3 vs L4
Game 7: 4 p.m., W1 vs. W2
Game 8: 6:30 p.m., W3 vs. W4
Game 9: 11 a.m., L8 vs. W5
Game 10: 1:30 p.m., L7 vs. W6
Game 11: 4 p.m., W7 vs. W8
Game 12: 6:30 p.m., W9 vs. W10
Game 13: 10 a.m., L11 vs. W12
Game 14: 12:30 p.m., W11 vs. W13
Game 15 (if-necessary): 3 p.m.
Email Gazette Deputy Sports Editor John Letasky at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJohnL
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