By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
The boys of summer will get a spring start this weekend as the Havre Northstars and Havre Comets will open their 2004 American Legion baseball seasons.
The Comets will be in Lewistown on Saturday to face the Lewistown Redbirds and then return to face the Northstars on Sunday at Legion Field the teams' home opener.
Sunday won't be the first games for the Northstars, who are coming off a pair of exhibition doubleheaders against the Prairie Baseball Academy junior varsity team in Lethbridge.
Havre, which is once again being guided by long-time manager Mickey Williams, dropped all four games against the college squad, but there were a few bright spots, including the play of some its returning players.
"We didn't hit very well in Lethbridge," Williams said. "I knew it was going to be our weak spot. It usually is this time of year because we spent so much time working on fundamentals."
Four-year player Ian Spencer ripped a home run in Canada while fellow four-year player Mark Benjamin also picked up a few hits and another four-year player Daine Solomon finished Sunday's doubleheaders with a 5-6 performance at the plate. Spencer, Benjamin, Solomon will join Cory Junck, when returns from his college season at Dickinson State, as key returners for the Northstars.
"We definitely need a leader from one of those four or someone else to step forward," Williams said.
Spencer can play all four positions and will be counted on as a starter in the Northstars pitching rotation.
Solomon, considered by many to be one of the top prospects in the state of Montana, is back. He led the Northstars in almost every offensive statistical category including batting average, home runs and RBIs.
Benjamin is another experienced outfielder that brings some speed on the bases. Junck was last year's starting shortstop and played solid defensively.
Besides the four-year players, the Northstars return only one other player from last year's Northern District championship team.
Pitcher Brandon Morse is back after spending the fall with the Big Sky Baseball Club playing college teams. Morse should anchor the rotation with a blazing fastball and hard-breaking curveball.
The remainder of the roster will be made up of players who played for the Comets last season. Trent Normandy and Patch Wirtzberger will make the move up to the Northstars.
Normandy was the Comets top pitcher last season, leading the young squad to a surprising third-place finish at the Northern District tournament. He will also be counted on to play a key role in the infield playing both shortstop and third base as needed.
Wirtzberger, who caught most of the games, was the Comets' leading hitter and a consistent threat to reach base.
Other players making the leap are Jordon Patterson, Bret Magelssen, Eric Fanning, Ben Erickson, Chase Castloo and Tony Christian while Ricky Houim returns to the program after a year away.
All of the Comets with the exception of Castloo and Houim are three-year players, and just about every player has plenty of experience playing in the Northern District.
"Everyone has about three years experience," Williams said. "They know what it takes to be successful in our district."
With the infusion of new players, Williams is still trying to find the right positions and combinations to make things work.
"We know who our infielders and our outfielders are," Williams said. "We just don't know exactly the right combination. It will change once Cory gets back and we finalize our pitching rotation."
Junck should be back some time next week and will join Morse, Castloo, Spencer and Normandy in the rotation. Normandy will get the start on Sunday.
Still, finding that team cohesion won't be easy with all the new players playing together for the first time.
"We're basically combining two teams into one," Williams said. "It's going to take some time for them to learn to play together."
With the massive exodus of players to the Northstars, the Comets will once again be a team heavy on 16-year olds with only infielder Jeff Tibbals, pitcher/outfielder Tyson Anderson, third baseman Bryden Vukasin and catcher/outfielder Mike Olson returning from last season.
But the players won't be the only new faces. Former Northstar and Northern football standout Andy Smith takes over the Comets reins from long-time coach Bob Evans, who stepped down after last season. Smith's team has just four players with past legion appearances, with the rest all competing in their first year.
After four weeks of practice, Smith and his squad are ready for some game competition other than intrasquad scrimmages.
"We've been working hard really hard in practice," Smith said. "These games five us the opportunity to see where we're at and what we need to work on. I know the players are excited to get out there and play after spending so much time just working on the fundamentals."
Tibbals, who missed part of the early practices while he was recovering from a broken arm, was one of the Comets most consistent performers last season. The diminutive infielder also pitched last season and may even see some time in the outfield as Smith tries to find a consistent lineup.
Anderson pitched in a lot of games last season and looks to be penciled in at right field when he's not on the mound. Vukasin played in more than half the games last season at third. Olson backed up Wirtzberger at catcher last season while also playing a little left field. He may see more time in the outfield being one of the few players with any Legion outfield experience.
With the lack of returners, Smith will rely heavily on a talented group of young players. Sean Peterson will be part of the starting rotation as well as seeing time at third base and shortstop. Josh Morse will assume the bulk of the catching duties along with Richard Jarvis, who will play some infield. In fact, Smith is loaded with infielders. Austin Small, John Christian, Billy Siebrasse, Tom Knudson and Jess McLain all play infield. That leaves the outfield lacking in depth with only Scott Ladenburg, Josh Lowe, Anderson and possibly Knudson as outfielders.
Because of the shortage, Smith is asking some of his infielders to learn the outfield position, which is not totally unheard of in the early stages of Legion baseball.
"Our players really can't have set positions," Smith said "Basically all the 16-year olds have to be able to learn to play more than one position. Maybe back in Babe Ruth they have never left the infield, but if they really want to play they're going to have to now."
The biggest thing is continuing to improve and learning how to play at the Legion level, which is a faster, stronger and more difficult game.
"We've had some scrimmages and from what I can tell the guys aren't intimidated," Smith said. "They get out there and compete pretty well and play aggressive which is what I want."
Saturday's game will be additionally tough for Smith because Morse, Small, Christian, Knudson will all miss because of other spring sports while Siebrasse is nursing a broken finger, suffered in practice.
Regardless of who is on the field, Smith only asks for his players to follow the basic unwritten rules of baseball.
"I just ask that they're going 100 percent all the time," Smith said. "Obviously, there are going to be mistakes because it's so early in the season. But as long as they're playing as hard as they can, they should be excited, play hard baseball and have some fun."