Host Bozeman Bucks enter as AA Legion top seed; Billings Cardinals, Miles City ready for A tourney
The Class AA and A Legion state tournaments will get underway this week, with the AA beginning on Wednesday in Bozeman.
The A will start on Thursday in Three Forks. Here is a look at some of the teams from the eastern side of Montana heading into the state tournaments.
Rich Poliquin is no stranger to success at the Class A Legion baseball level.
Come Wednesday, he’ll get his first taste of the Class AA postseason, hoping to see that trend of success continue.
Poliquin’s Bozeman Bucks will begin as the tournament’s No. 1 seed and the host team for this year’s State AA Legion tournament when they get underway against the No. 8 seed Billings Scarlets (16-38, 6-12) on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
Poliquin is currently in his first year coaching the AA Bucks and has led the team to a 47-13 overall record with a 14-4 conference record. The past two years, Poliquin managed the Hamilton-based Bitterroot Red Sox to back-to-back Class A state and regional championships.
Now, it’s his chance to try and add a Class AA title to his resume.
“Big difference at the AA is every team’s got one or two guys at the top of their rotation,” Poliquin said. “I like it. There’s no games to look past. You have to go out and take care of every game.
“What I’ve seen this season with the AA is there is a lot of parity. It’s not going to be a huge surprise if this team beats that team. So you basically need to come out and be ready to go.”
The tournament will kick off when the third-seeded Missoula Mavericks (48-24, 12-6) take on the sixth-seeded Great Falls Chargers (27-25, 9-9) at 9 a.m. They will be followed by the fourth-seeded Helena Senators (31-24, 12-6) taking on the fifth-seeded Kalispell Lakers (30-16, 11-7) at noon.
The second-seeded Billings Royals (29-22, 13-5) will face off against the seventh-seeded Lethbridge Elks (19-20, 7-11) at 3 p.m.
The tournament is double-elimination and will run Wednesday through Sunday.
Poliquin said consistency needs to be present for his team to find success, also echoing to his players that being the No. 1 seed comes with some added pressures as well as advantages.
“A lot of the guys on the team haven’t gone in as a one seed and I’m hoping they understand that it puts a little bull’s eye on your back,” Poliquin said. “We hope to come out and play loose and we’ll see how it goes. I’m excited.”
Poliquin added that getting a chance to stay at home also presented a welcoming advantage for the Bucks.
For the Scarlets, the two-time defending state champions, they needed one win on Sunday against Great Falls to secure a spot in the tournament. They swept the Chargers and now turn their attention towards a tough opening match with the top-seeded Bucks.
“We were just there a week ago and we played them to a one-run game and a two-run game and in the Goldsmith (tournament) we played them to a one-run game,” Scarlets coach Adam Hust said about the Bucks. “We’ve been competitive with them. It is tough to go on the road on somebody else’s field. We know we will get their best. We will go in there and play hard and give it everything we’ve got.”
As for the Royals, they saw Lethbridge back in early June in Lethbridge, where they swept the Elks by scores of 2-0 and 10-2.
“I feel really good with how we’re playing baseball right now,” Bryan Benjamin said. “We’re hitting the ball real well and playing pretty good defense. Overall, I’m very happy with where we’re sitting right now going into the state tournament.”
Benjamin said over the past couple of weeks the Royals have been utilizing the players who will go to state more and more as they transitioned towards preparing for the state tournament.
“We’re pretty confident with who we have going in there and I think we’re going to be okay,” Benjamin said.
It wasn’t enough that the Billings Cardinals and the Miles City Mavericks had to play for the East A American Legion baseball district tournament championship. Cardinals coach Jeremy DeVries wanted to put another title on the line, as well, as the tournament wrapped up its stay in Miles City.
So last Sunday, shortly after his team beat Miles City 3-2 to force a second championship, and about 18 hours before the teams would play again, DeVries contacted Miles City coach Jake Mills and challenged the Mavericks to a bowling tournament.
When the teams found out the Miles City bowling alley was closed, they instead gathered at the Yellowstone Tavern for food, and games of pool and darts. There was also a punching bag machine at the tavern, and a contest, complete with a flattened basketball stuffed with garbage as a trophy, was set up.
The Cardinals’ Michael Bruns was deemed the hardest puncher, edging Miles City’s Jacob Swope, but the Mavericks got the last laugh. Miles City beat the Cardinals 4-2 in the second championship. To DeVries, it was all good.
“It was so fun, our kids got to know their kids,” DeVries said of the five days, especially the last two, in Miles City. “This whole week (on Facebook and Twitter) has been a flood of kids liking and following each other.”
The Cardinals and Mavericks will have another week of following each other since both are at the Class A Legion state tournament, which begins Thursday in Three Forks. Also in the field: Medicine Hat, Lewistown, Kalispell (Lakers), Belgrade, Bitterroot Red Sox and host Gallatin Valley.
For the Mavericks, the state berth was a long time coming. Mills, who is also an assistant baseball coach at Miles Community College, said parents have told him this is the first time since 1996 the Mavericks have “earned” a state trip, meaning not counting times the program has hosted a state tourney.
They entered the district tournament as the fourth seed, but ended up as district champs.
“I don’t think a lot of people were expecting anything from us,” Mills said. “It was a ride, a lot of ups and downs. A lot of good baseball. There wasn’t any moment where we thought we were out of this, so I’m just proud of the guys.”
The Cardinals began the district tournament as the three seed. So, they, too, helped turn the district tournament a bit upside down.
As a feeder program to the Class AA Billings Scarlets, the Cardinals (and their counterparts the Billings Blue Jays) are typically quite a bit younger than the other Class A teams in their district. Most of the Cardinals players are 15 and 16 years old, and of DeVries’s 18-player roster, 15 of them were new to the team this year.
So he had no expectations when this season began.
“I bring in the kids, teach them as fast as I can, and we cross our fingers and go for it,” DeVries said.
The Cardinals played six games at the district tournament and five of them were one-run games. The other was Monday’s 4-2 loss to Miles City in the if-needed championship game.
“We’re battled-tested, man,” DeVries said.
The testing continues Thursday.