Havre Daily News Sports Editor
State tournament experience is a relative thing for the Havre Northstars.
They may not have a wealth of state tournament experience on their roster, but the Northstars have played all but two of the 11 teams that will be participating in the Montana Class A State American Legion baseball tournament, which kicked off this morning in Sidney.
Because they won the Northern District tournament championship last weekend in Havre, the Northstars will receive a first-round bye and face the winner of the Bitterroot Bucs-Glendive Blue Devils first-round game on Saturday afternoon at 4.
Havre played both the Bucs and Blue Devils multiple times during the regular season, with mixed results. Havre defeated Bitterroot 4-3 in the Havre Baseball Jamboree, but lost to the Bucs 13-3 at the Vester Wilson Wood Bat Invitational in Hamilton.
The Northstars have also had solid success against the defending state champion Blue Devils. Havre defeated Glendive at the Jamboree 7-5, and won 2-0 at the Luzenac Memorial tournament in Three Forks. Most recently, Havre split with Glendive at the Blue Devils tournament in mid-July.
"I don't know if I have preference on who we play," said Northstars head coach Mickey Williams. "We've beat both of them this season Obviously, we've had a little more success against Glendive, but that doesn't make them any easier to beat than Bitterroot."
Indeed, the Blue Devils return several key players from last year's championship squad. Shortstop Joe Bakken, catcher Colin Radakovich and pitcher/centerfielder Jason Erickson have all been consistent contributors this season. Glendive also gets production from first baseman Andy Odenbach and second baseman Robbie Radakovich
"Glendive is a good, experienced team," Williams said. "They go to the state tournament every year, so their kids know exactly what to expect. They just play solid baseball and don't make many mistakes. They make you beat yourself."
Bitterroot comes battled tested, having survived a brutal district tournament that featured perennial Class A power Bitterroot Red Sox along with solid teams in Mission Valley and Libby. The Bucs forced a second championship game against the Red Sox, but still finished second.
Although they didn't make it to state last year, the Bucs are loaded with 18- and 19-year-olds and it shows in the way they play.
"The Bucs are tough," Williams said. "They have some very talented kids at the top of their lineup that can really hit and score runs."
Third baseman Phil Perez ignites the Bucs offense from his lead-off spot. Perez is a solid hitter who finds ways to get on base and scores a lot of runs.
"Perez is solid," Williams said. "He makes things happen for them on offense, and he's great defensively in the field. He always seems to come up with big plays for them."
The Bucs offense also relies heavily on Chance and Cam Edman, J.C. Shepherd and Tony Isbell.
Havre could face either Shepherd or Isbell on the mound. Shepherd started the loss to the Northstars. They may want to avoid Isbell, since he has thrown three no-hitters this season.
But it isn't just Havre's immediate competition that is good. The entire field is loaded with talent, athleticism and depth.
On the Northstars' side of the 11-team bracket are the vaunted Red Sox along with perennial powerhouse Gallatin Valley. The Red Sox lost to the Northstars for the first time in two years, but they avenged the loss with two straight wins later in the season. They are a run-scoring machine with hitters Lucky Barrett, Jordan Mousley, Patrick McKay and Brett Henry racking up runs and RBIs.
"The Red Sox are going to put runs on the board," Williams said. "It really doesn't matter who you throw, they are going to get their runs. But they also give up some because their pitching isn't as deep as it has been in the past."
Gallatin Valley is coming off a rare second-place finish in the Central A District. The Outlaws were upset by Belgrade in the title game. But don't let that fool you. Gallatin Valley has plenty of talent to take the title. Catcher Justin Chaffins is one of the strongest and most dangerous hitters in the tournament. He gets a little help from first baseman/pitcher Toby Marx and slick-fielding shortstop Nate Anderson.
On the top part of the bracket, Northern District runner-up Vauxhall Spurs will face the host Richland County Patriots. The winner will face Belgrade, while Eastern District champ Wolf Point and Southern District champ Lewistown both received byes and will meet each other in the second round.
Williams likes the Wolf Point Yellowjackets to come out of the top of the bracket.
"Wolf Point might have the best pitcher in the tournament in Chauncey Hannon," he said. "He throws in the 90s and has good breaking stuff. He's also a good hitter and plays centerfield when he doesn't pitch. He's a complete player."
Belgrade played in last year's state tournament and has 6-8 pitcher Jace Hertzog and shortstop Clint Marcott.
Williams believes that Vauxhall could be a sleeper in that half of the bracket. The Spurs' high-powered offense could power past Richland County and could give Belgrade a tough game in the second round.
"Vauxhall is a better team than people might think," he said. "They hit the ball hard, don't strike out and run the bases pretty aggressively. They should win that first game."
With all these tough teams, where does that leave the Northstars?
A little under the radar, Williams admitted. Havre has played everyone in the field but Lewistown, Sidney and Belgrade this season. However, the Northstars eliminated Belgrade from last year's state tourney.
Havre's mixed success against those opponents and the departure of the majority of last year's state tournament team has left people doubting the Northstars, despite a 42-24 record and a fifth-straight Northern District title. Surprisingly, Northstars players don't mind being shortchanged a bit.
"I think people are underestimating us a little coming into the tournament," said first baseman Ben Erickson. "They look at all of the players and offense that we lost and figure we're down. But we know we're better than people think. We're going to surprise some people."
Erickson, Patch Wirtzberger, Eric Fanning, Jeff Tibbals and Chase Castloo are the only players on the Northstar squad with any state tournament experience. The fivesome played on last year's team, with each seeing action. That experience will only help them.
"I know it won't be as nerve-racking," Wirtzberger said. "Last year, it was in Havre and there was a ton of people and it made me pretty nervous. This year, I know what to expect."
Williams is hoping that those kids share some of their experience with his six newcomers.
"We should be more laid back because we know what to expect," Erickson said. "We have to just try and loosen the other guys up and make them play like it's any other game."
They'll have to do more than that. Erickson and Wirtzberger, along with Tibbals and outfielder Josh Lowe, account for much of the Northstars' offense.
Wirtzberger leads the Northstars in hitting with a .455 batting average and a gaudy .546 on-base percentage. He also leads the team in hits (90), walks (38), runs (80) and stolen bases (48).
"Patch has the ability to manufacture runs with his speed," Williams said. "A big part of our offense is him getting on base and stealing his way into scoring position."
Erickson is batting .370 despite a pair of mini-slumps in the regular season. He has driven in a team-high 70 runs and has ripped 18 doubles, three triples and three home runs.
"Ben must have a good tournament for us to be successful," Williams said. "He comes up a lot with runners in scoring position, and we need him to deliver."
Lowe is second on the team in hitting at .404 and second in runs driven in with 43. Tibbals is batting .356 from his lead-off position and has 33 RBIs on the season. He's scored 31 runs and has swiped 20 bases on the season.
"We have to execute when we get guys on base," Wirtzberger said. "We aren't a team that scores a ton of runs, so when we get runners in scoring position we have to find a way to get them in."
Also coming on as of late is shortstop Sean Peterson, who raised his batting average to .331 after an MVP- caliber performance at the district tournament with his hitting and solid defense in the field.
Peterson will get the nod on the mound in the opener. He has a 7-4 record on the season and is coming off an 8-5 win over Vauxhall at the district tourney.
"Sean has been one of our most consistent pitchers all season," Williams said. "He was very sharp against Vauxhall. The big thing with Sean is getting him warmed up before the game. In his losses, he struggles in the first couple innings because he isn't as warm as he should be."
Besides Peterson, Williams has one of the deeper pitching staffs to pick from. He will go with either Austin Small (11-3) or Chase Castloo (5-6) in the second game. However, if Peterson were to get in any type of trouble, Williams won't hesitate to bring Small in in relief. He also has Erickson (8-2), Tibbals (8-3), John Christian (2-4) and Scott Ladenburg (1-2), if needed.
"We have plenty of pitching, which is what you need in this tournament," Williams said. "The big thing for our pitchers is to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters. You can't afford to give any teams any free bases or free outs."
Defensively, Havre has been solid throughout the season, but it must continue this weekend.
"We have to limit our mistakes," Erickson said. "We're going to make a few errors, but we can't have any mental mistakes."
While a state championship is the Northstars' ultimate goal, winning the first game is the immediate goal.
"I think we can win this first game," Wirtzberger said. "We've beat both of those teams before. We know what to expect from them."
Said Williams: "We seem to raise our level of play against good competition. It's just a matter of us going out and playing at the level we're capable of playing at."