BILLINGS — On Sunday afternoon, the Bozeman Bucks players might just be found in a dogpile on the Dehler Park infield for the second year in a row.
The defending State AA champion Bucks enter the American Legion baseball Class AA state championships Wednesday through Sunday at the downtown Billings ballpark as the No. 1 seed.
After finishing the regular season with a 45-12 record and a league-leading 21-3 conference mark, the Bucks secured the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye in the seven-team field.
The 2020 season, which was in question at the start because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, ends as COVID-19 concerns remain. The year-end state tourney was moved on Saturday from Helena to Billings because health officials in Lewis and Clark County didn’t provide approval due to concerns with the pandemic.
On Saturday, Billings American Legion baseball chairman Jeff Ballard told 406mtsports.com the tourney met with the approval of the Yellowstone County health department.
Legion games at the Goldsmith Gallery Jewelers Baseball Tournament, and four Scarlets-Royals contests, have been held at spacious Dehler Park this summer.
Normally, the bracket would include eight teams, but the two Canadian teams that play in the Montana-Alberta league — Lethbridge and Medicine Hat — didn’t compete in the conference this year as the United States-Canadian border was closed to nonessential traffic. That left seven Montana teams competing in Class AA this season, and all seven qualified for the state tourney.
The loser of Game 3 between the Billings Scarlets and the Billings Royals will also receive a bye in loser’s bracket play on Thursday.
“The seven AA teams in Montana this year are good and we’ve had some tough competition in conference play,” said Bucks third-year coach Garrett Schultz. “I’ve never had a bye before in this tournament. It’s a funny bracket with only seven teams. We had to find something to make it work.”
While the Bucks have earned the bye, not playing in the first game could alter strategy.
“We are happy to get that bye,” Schultz said. “You are guaranteed to advance one round without throwing an arm, but it’s different planning for how to attack your pitching rotation.”
There wasn’t much spacing in the AA conference standings after the Bucks finished No. 1. Helena was second at 15-9, Kalispell third at 14-10, the Scarlets fourth at 10-14, the Royals fifth at 9-15, Missoula sixth at 9-15 and Great Falls seventh at 6-18.
“There isn’t any team you can look past,” said Schultz.
First-round games pit Missoula against Kalispell at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Great Falls vs. Helena at 4 p.m. and the Scarlets will tangle with the Royals at 7 p.m. The Royals won the season series with the Scarlets, 5-2.
The crosstown rivalry game is sure to be a fan favorite in the Magic City.
“I don’t think there’s any secrets between the two of us,” said Royals coach David Swecker. “Whoever plays defense and pitches well will win that game.”
“I love it,” said longtime Scarlets coach Adam Hust, who also played for the team, of the first-round matchup. “Since they went to this format with no East and West conference I wondered when there would be a day we face each other in the first round.”
Last year the Bucks beat the defending state champion Royals 6-1 in the title game. The win capped a 5-0 performance for Bozeman at the tourney as the Bucks outscored the opposition 48-12.
Hunter Williams pitched a complete game for the Bucks in the championship match, was 2-0 at the event and earned MVP honors. Kelher Murfitt earned the tourney's top batter award with a .529 average, .667 on-base percentage and 10 runs scored.
Williams and Murfitt, the Bucks’ leadoff batter, are both on this year’s roster. Williams is the ace of the staff, although Sage McMinn is option “1B” said Schultz.
McMinn has a .500 batting average with 13 home runs said Schultz. Murfitt has a high on-base percentage and has been hit by 35 pitches. Catcher Alton Gyselman is hitting .450.
While in past years the state champion would have advanced to a regional tourney, the American Legion regionals and World Series have been canceled because of the coronavirus.
The State AA championship game is scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m. A second championship game, if necessary, would be played 45 minutes after the conclusion of the 1 p.m. game.
Hust said the Scarlets players appreciate the opportunity to have played a season and are gracious to play in a state tournament. After all, there are plenty of activities that have been canceled or postponed in the wake of the virus.
“There are a lot of kids sitting around wanting to be in their shoes. We won’t take it lightly,” said Hust. "We’ll cherish every play and try to have fun while we are doing it.”
BASEPATHS: Tourney games will be streamed live at montanalegionbaseball.org. … Fans will be allowed at the park, but the social-distancing protocols employed during the regular season at Dehler will be used said Billings American Legion Baseball director of operations Brenda Sommerville. Hand sanitizer will be available, as will be disinfectant wipes. Also, sunflower seeds, peanuts or other shelled nuts are not allowed because of COVID-19 regulations. Sections of the bleachers will also be marked so fans don’t sit there, and the drinking fountains are also unavailable to use as a precaution. … Food trucks will be at the facility and beverages will be available for purchase.
Email Gazette Deputy Sports Editor John Letasky at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJohnL
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