By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The dog days of summer are going to have to wait.
Every ground ball taken, every fly ball caught, every mile traveled will culminate today as the Havre Northstars and Comets travel to Medicine Hat, Alberta, for the Northern A District tournament with a berth for the Class A State Tournament on the line. The top two teams from the tournament will advance to the state tournament in Hamilton on Aug. 1-5.
The Northstars, 24-6 in conference and the number two seed, will be looking to defend their district tournament title as they open today's first round against the seventh-seeded Tri-County Cardinals.
Havre has defeated the Cardinals four times this season, three times quite easily.
It's a game that the Northstars should win. But like the old cliche says, "anything can happen during tournament time."
"We need to hit the ball early and set the tone," said Northstars head coach Mickey Williams. "When we get hits early, we tend to build off the momentum and get rolling. But when we don't hit early, I think we kind of press a little."
Hits won't be exactly easy in that first game as the Northstars will most likely face Cardinal ace Luke Alford.
Havre has beaten Alford both times it has faced him this season. But the first game was fairly close and Alford is more than capable of shutting a good team down.
"He throws pretty hard," Williams said. "He's their best pitcher and their best all-around player. We hit him pretty hard the last time we played."
One distinct advantage the Northstars will have going into the tournament is the change in length of games. During the regular season, most games are played in seven innings. However at the district tourney, games are nine innings, which Williams believes will work in his team's favor.
"I think we have a definite advantage in the longer games," Williams said. "We have older more experienced kids who are used to playing in nine inning games and staying focused all game."
It also means that the powerful Northstars hitters, Daine Solomon and Dusty Heath, in particular, will get an extra at-bat or two a game.
"Anytime you get an extra at-bat for someone like Daine it's big," Heath said.
Heath isn't a slouch at the plate either. The duo along with Ian Spencer and Steve Heberly are leading the Northstars in hitting with averages all above .400. Solomon brings a gaudy .500 average to the tourney. He leads the Northstars in most offensive statistical categories including hits (97), singles (68), doubles(18), home runs (8) and RBIs (82).
Heath has been Havre's most consistent hitter down the stretch. He has taken full advantage of the rule change allowing him another year of Legion baseball.
"I've been really happy with Dusty," Williams said. "He has adjusted to the new kids and really taken over the leadership role. He has grown up quite a bit since he first started in the program."
Said Heath: "(Williams) always expected a lot from me. It was kind of difficult at first, but we just started clicking in the middle of the season."
It will be Heath's third district tournament in his career while a slew of other Northstar players will be playing in their second. That experience should be an advantage for Havre.
"We shouldn't be nervous or surprised," Williams said. "Most of our kids played in last year's tournament and know what to expect."
Williams wasn't sure who would start the first game, but he was leaning toward Ian Spencer (7-3) over Cory Junck (5-2), since he will need Junck at full strength at shortstop.
"We have to take into consideration our position players when it comes to pitching," Williams said. "We need Cory's defense at shortstop all weekend."
The Northstars fully believe they should beat Tri-County and win a second-round game, most likely against Fort MacLeod, which would hopefully set up a matchup against Lethbridge, who swept Havre a couple weeks ago.
But neither Williams nor Heath will look too far ahead, knowing they have to win two games to get the championship game and more importantly qualify for the state tournament.
"We still have to win two games to get there," Williams said. "We can't look past anyone, certainly not three games down the road."
Said Heath: "We have to get past Tri-County first and then MacLeod, then we can get some revenge against Lethbridge."
While the Northstars should benefit from the two extra innings of baseball, the nine-inning games have Comet head coach Bob Evans a little worried.
During the regular season, the Comets were infamous for playing six good innings in seven innings. The one bad inning cost the Comets probably 10 wins on the season. Evans knows his team has trouble maintaining focus and hopes the extra two innings won't come with an extra bad inning.
"We've talked all week about staying focused longer than they have before," Evans said. "We need to avoid those bad innings."
The Comets, 12-20 in conference play and the fifth seed, will take on the third-seeded and host Medicine Hat Knights tonight at 6 p.m.
The Comets lost all four games against the Knights this season. But, two of those losses came in extra innings and after Havre blew leads and chances to win the game.
"We know we can compete with them," Evans said. "Our kids believe we can beat them. There isn't any fear there. If we can play like we're capable of we can win that game."
Getting a win is precisely what Evans hopes for in this tourney. His goal is to win at least two games, if not more.
For the Comets to do that, they must maintain consistency in the field and get some timely hitting.
"We don't score a ton of runs or hit the ball out of the park," Evans said. "We need to play consistently on defense and make plays. We've been hanging right in there against teams, we just have to finish them off when we get leads."
Evans will start Chase Castloo in tonight's game with Trent Normandy as his emergency relief. Regardless of the outcome of the game, Normandy will start the second game.
"I am not going to save our best pitcher and wind up not using him," Evans said.
With seven 17-year-olds on the team, the Comets have more experience than many teams, which Evans hopes will be an asset.
"They know what we have to do," Evans said. "Most of our kids have played a lot of baseball. I just hope they're ready to play because this what we've been preparing all season for."
CONFERENCE RECORD: 22-6; OVERALL RECORD: 40-19
KEY PLAYERS: Dusty Heath (2B), Daine Solomon (OF), Steve Heberly (OF, P), Tyler Thompson (P), Ian Spencer (3B, P)
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The Northstars are one of the top teams in the state, when they come to play. However, when the Northstars have been flat, they are very beatable as evidenced by a home sweep by Lethbridge. Heberly and Adam Jensen must find ways to get on base for the big guns of Solomon and Heath. The real key will be to get offense from the bottom half of the order from Tyson Roe, Ian Spencer and Mark Benjamin. The Northstars have the most pitching depth with six solid starters led by Thompson, Spencer and Heberly.
OUTLOOK: The Northstars play best when they are motivated. A berth at the Class A State Tourney should provide plenty of incentive. Look for the Northstars to be in the title game.
CONFERENCE RECORD: 12-20
KEY PLAYERS: Trent Normandy (SS, P), Chase Castloo (P), Jeff Tibbals (3B, P), Patch Wirtzberger (C), Jordon Patterson (OF).
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The Comets come into the district tournament following perhaps the worst four games of their season. They must recover from the rough end of the season and rebound. The biggest problem plaguing the Comets all season has been inability to play a complete game. With games going from seven to nine innings, those problems could increase. Still, the Comets are scrappy as proved by a win over the Northstars earlier this season. If they can stay focused for nine innings, and Castloo and Normandy throw strikes and stay ahead of batters, they are more than capable of winning their first round game against Medicine Hat.
OUTLOOK: The Comets are playing good for six innings in seven inning games. It will be even more difficult to avoid one bad inning in a nine-inning game. Castloo and Normandy are as good as any young pitchers in the tournament. Look for the Comets to pick up at least one, if not two wins in the tourney before losing out to one of the big three.