Havre Daily News Sports Editor
There will be no bean brawls, no salary squabbles, no pitchers throwing down cameramen, no taking plays or days off because it means nothing.
Instead, there will be nonstop hustle, sprinting, sliding and hopefully some smiles today at Legion Field, because the game means everything to eight teams in the Northern District baseball tournament that got under way this morning.
The eight conference foes will be vying for just two precious berths in the Montana Class A State American Legion Baseball tournament. And unlike past years, this year's tournament is about as wide-open and evenly-matched as it has been in recent memory.
"Some of the records may not show it, but this is going to be a very competitive tournament," said longtime Northstars head coach Mickey Williams. "I really feel like any team is capable of beating any team. You saw it happen during the regular season. It just comes down to who comes ready to play each game."
Indeed, Williams has been around the league long enough to have his premonitions taken seriously. And he has plenty of proof with his own team.
The Northstars come into the tournament as the No. 1 seed, finishing first overall in the regular season with a 24-5 conference record. They will face the No. 8 seed Fort MacLeod Royals at 4 p.m.
Fort MacLeod is one of the few teams in the district that haven't beaten the Northstars this season. But the Royals did play Havre tough in a couple of games. Williams isn't about to let his team take anyone for granted, particularly with the way the Northstars have been playing as of late.
"We haven't exactly been tearing up opponents," Williams said. "We just haven't played consistently in the past few weeks. We have one good game and come out flat the next. We can't just show up and expect to win because we're the Northstars."
It used to seem like that in the past few years. The Northstars have won the last four district tournament titles and possess the talent and experience to win a fifth.
Havre is led by its crop of 18-year-old players, particluarly the trio of Patch Wirtzberger, Ben Erickson and Jeff Tibbals.
Wirtzberger leads the team in hitting with a .471 batting average and has team highs in hits (80), runs scored (72) and walks (31). He has a gaudy .559 on-base percentage and causes teams headaches on the bases with 44 steals on the season.
Erickson has been Havre's best power threat with a .367 batting average and a .544 slugging percentage. He has driven in a team-high 59 runs and leads the team in doubles (15) and home runs (3). He has also been solid on the mound with an 8-2 record, including a 2.08 earned run average.
Tibbals will get the start on the mound today against MacLeod. He comes in with a 7-3 record and a 2.63 ERA. He has also been solid at the plate with a .365 average with 14 doubles, four triples, 28 RBIs and 63 runs scored. He also has 18 stolen bases on the season.
Havre has also been getting good run production from centerfielder Josh Lowe, who has blossomed this season, hitting .394 with six doubles and 38 RBIs. Defensively, the Northstars have been getting solid play from Eric Fanning at third and Sean Peterson at shortstop.
Perhaps the Northstars' biggest advantage will be their pitching depth. Besides Tibbals and Erickson, Williams has a whole host of talented arms to call upon. Austin Small has been their most consistent pitcher with a 10-3 record and a 1.93 ERA. He has four shutouts and just 10 walks on the season.
Peterson comes in with a 6-4 record, including wins over perennial Class A powers Bitterroot and Gallatin Valley. Also figuring into the mix are Chase Castloo and John Christian. Castloo has just a 4-6 record on the season, but he is coming off a solid outing against Glendive and is the Northstars hardest thrower. Christian is 2-5 on the season, but is capable of giving Havre some innings in relief.
With Wirtzberger, Erickson, Tibbals, Fanning and Castloo all part of last year's district championship squad, Williams has more quality tournament experience than any other team in the field. He hopes that translates into success.
"Obviously, we have some kids that know what it takes to win this tournament," Williams said. "But the circumstances are much different this year. We haven't been quite as dominant all season and opposing teams know that. Our kids know that they can't just show up and expect teams to lay down for us. We have to come ready to compete every game."
While the Northstars come in as the team everyone would love to beat, the Havre Comets come in a little under the radar after an up-and-down regular season.
The Comets finished with a 9-22 record in conference and come in as the No. 7 seed. But it really doesn't reflect the number of close games they lost. Call it inexperience or growing pains, but the Comets had a hard time putting together seven solid innings in one game. With the district tournament games running nine innings, Comet head coach Andy Smith knows his team will need to play its best baseball of the season.
"That's something that I have stressed to our kids is that it's a new season," he said. "Everyone starts fresh from here."
The Comets will begin that fresh start with the tournament's No. 2 seed, the Vauxhall Spurs, tonight at 7:30.
Vauxhall comes in with an impressive 24-8 record in conference and has a wealth of kids returning from last year's team that finished third in the district tourney and qualified for the state tournament.
One of the Comets' nine wins in the conference came against Vauxhall on July 13 as Jeremiah Moog pitched Havre to a big win. But in each of the three losses, Vauxhall scored more than 12 runs.
Smith will start Moog on the mound in tonight's game. The lefthander may give Havre its best chance against Vauxhall's myriad of left-handed hitters.
"I think we have a chance against Vauxhall," Smith said. "We've beat them once before, so the kids know it can be done. We just have to go out and play well."
If there is one thing that has plagued the Comets this season, it's consistency, whether from game-to-game, inning-to-inning or play-to-play.
"We have to stay focused the entire game," Smith said. "Vauxhall is too good of a team to make mistakes against, especially in the field. We need to make plays defensively when we get the chance. That's been our big problem, we give teams extra outs in innings and it comes back to haunt us."
Still, there is no doubting the Comets' overall talent. They have been a solid hitting team all season with plenty of players capable of banging out enough offense to beat the high-scoring Spurs.
Lead-off man Logan Reichelt has been adept at getting on-base and scoring runs, while shortstop Anthony Wirtzberger has also hit the ball consistently. Catchers Bryan Heath and Ryan Callahan and first baseman Michael Erickson possess extra-base power, while Moog, Tanner Donovan, Jess McLain, and Richard Jarvis have also had big games offensively this season.
Another strength for the Comets is their pitching depth. Besides Moog, Smith can call on Reichelt, Donovan, Wirtzberger, Jensen, Erickson and Tanner Abdallah for solid innings in the tournament.
"I really feel confident with our pitching," Smith said. "I know I can put a lot of different guys out there on the mound and know that they are going to throw strikes and keep us in games."
In a perfect world, with the Northstars and Comets on opposites sides of the bracket, the two teams would meet in Saturday's semifinal and Sunday's championship game with guaranteed berths to the state tournament.
While it seems highly unlikely given the depth of the tournament, anything could happen.
"There is no reason for our kids not to think they can't," Smith said. "We just have to raise our level of play higher than it was during the regular season."
Said Williams: "There is no guaranteed wins for any team in this tournament - the regular season proved that. It's going to come down to whichever team can throw strikes, make the plays in the field and get timely hits."