By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
If you're there, you might as well win it.
For many teams, just making it to the Class A state American Legion tournament is an accomplishment in and of itself. But for the Havre Northstars, they won't be satisfied with anything less than another state title.
After finishing third and fourth, respectively, in the past two years, the Northstars will look to bring home a state title as their tournament play commences in Hamilton at 5 p.m. Saturday.
By virtue of winning the Northern A District tournament title a week ago, Havre received a first-round bye and will face the winner of this morning's game between the Helena Reps and the Bitterroot Bucs.
The Bucs, who many consider to be the premier team in Class A, should, barring a major upset, advance to the next round and face the Northstars.
The possibility of meeting one of the pretournament favorites in their first game doesn't bother Northstars head coach Mickey Williams much. Havre faced the Bucs earlier this season and lost 8-3 at the Vester Wilson Wood Bat Tournament in Hamilton.
However, in that game, Havre was reduced to only nine players. Low on pitching, Williams gave Tyson Roe, normally a first baseman or designated hitter, the start on the mound.
"We lost to them earlier in the season, but we pitched Tyson in that game," Williams said. "Don't get me wrong. Tyson did a great job, but he hadn't pitched in about two years and we still managed to play them close. We probably win if we don't make a couple costly errors. They're still probably the best team we've faced all season."
The Northstars also faced, according to Williams, the best pitcher they've seen all year in 18-year-old Evan Ringel. The Buc ace is 14-2 on the season and possesses three good pitches.
"He was pretty tough," centerfielder Steve Heberly said of Ringel. "But we were using wooden bats in that tourney, which made a him a little tougher to hit."
Said second baseman and team leader Dusty Heath: "He certainly didn't scare us or anything. He's a good pitcher but we made some mistakes in that game. We can definitely beat them."
The Northstars may not even have to face Ringel for the entire game. According to the Ravalli Republic, Ringel is slated to start the opening game against Helena. However, if the Bucs do get a big lead, he would most likely be pulled so he could pitch some innings against the Northstars.
If Ringel starts the opener, Havre would most likely face Cody Person, the staff's No. 2 starter.
Regardless of whom the Northstars face, Williams knows his team won't be intimidated.
"We have too much state tourney experience to be intimidated by everything that is going on or the other team," Williams said. "For most of our players, this is their second state tourney and for Dusty (Heath) this is his third."
However, one key player who doesn't have any state tourney experience is Saturday's starting pitcher - Brandon Morse. While he's never been accused of lacking confidence, Morse will still be pitching in the biggest game to date in his Legion career. And his stomach will definitely be filled with a few butterflies.
"I plan on talking with Brandon and the rest of the guys before the game," Heath said. "Brandon just needs to stay within himself and not overthrow because one pitch won't win or lose the game. As for the rest of the team, I am just going to remind them that it's the same game it's always been all season. Nothing's different on the field or at the plate."
There will be one difference on the field itself that the Northstars will have to deal with. The dimensions at Vester Wilson Athletic Field are quite a bit smaller than the fields Havre usually plays on. The left field supposedly measures 310 feet, but Williams believes it is closer to 290, while center field is at 360 and right field is close to 300 feet. A band box is how some could describe the field, or a Little League field as others call it. Regardless, it's the field and the Northstars have to make the adjustment.
They played on the field earlier in the season and know what things they have to do to be successful.
"Our pitchers have to keep the ball down," Williams said. "Our outfielders are our best defensive advantage and that's taken away. So we have to be better defensively in other places. We can't give up free outs and bases because one swing could put you down two or three runs."
As will all good hitters, Heath is looking at the field from an offensive perspective. After he and fellow slugger Daine Solomon had a relatively quiet weekend at districts, Heath believes it will change this weekend in the hitter-friendly confines.
"We're all going to hit better this weekend," Heath said. "The park is a hitters' park and you will definitely see some ball going out of the park."
The key for Havre will be to jump out early and set the tone early for the entire tournament.
"If we play well early, we can jump out and gain some momentum," Heberly said. "We play much better when we're ahead than when we're behind."
The key will be winning that first game. If the Northstars can do that, they can and should make it to the title game.
"The bracket sets up pretty well for us if we win that first game," Williams said. "We just have to take care of that first one and not worry about anything else."