Havre Daily News Sports
The scene at the end of the 2005 Montana State Men's Fast-pitch Softball tournament Sunday evening in Havre was the same as it has been for the last three years, with the Master Sports fast-pitch club hoisting yet another state championship trophy.
But in order to get that third title behind veteran pitcher Ryan Divish, Master Sports had to beat not only an old teammate and a fast-pitch softball legend, but they had to beat a young, upstart Gallery Lounge team, who surprised the field by reaching the title game behind national pitching legend Gary Joe Evans.
And in the end Master Sports did just that, defeating the Gallery Lounge and Evans 5-3 to capture its third straight state championship at the Sixth Avenue Memorial Softball field in Havre.
While both Evans and Divish were brilliant on the mound throughout the weekend, it was the Master Sports hitting that eventually put Gallery Lounge's surprise run to rest in title.
Even though the Gallery took an early 1-0 lead in the first inning on a Daine Solomon run-scoring double, MS gave Divish more than enough run support and he even helped himself out by homering in the second inning to tie the game at 1-1.
In the fourth inning, veteran power hitter Andy Smith broke that tie with a solo home run of his own and Master Sports tacked on three more insurance runs in the fifth inning on a costly throwing error, while Smith ripped a long run-scoring double off the centerfield wall.
Gallery closed the gap in the sixth, when Master Sports committed a throwing error of its own, allowing two runs to score.
While Smith was the hitting hero in the championship game, Divish was the winning pitcher. He went the distance and struck out eight batters. Evans also had a phenomenal game on the mound striking out 10. Master Sports also got a couple of hits each from Rick Brown and Kyle Sheppard to help Divish's cause.
"It was a lot different facing Gary Joe then when we used to play behind him," Smith said after a 2-for-3 day at the plate. "He still throws really hard and he pitched a great game. But it was the second time we faced him that day and I think we were seeing the ball a lot better. But both he and Ryan were extremely dominant this weekend and we played to great games against a good young team in the Gallery Lounge."
Indeed, the Gallery had to fight its way into the title game against another Havre team in Taco John's. After Master Sports defeated the Gallery Lounge 1-0 earlier in the day in the first semifinal, despite getting just a single hit off of Evans.
The game's lone run came in the sixth inning. Divish struck out on a ball in the dirt, but reached first base as the ball bounced past the catcher and went high off the backstop. Divish was replaced by pinch runner Steve Heberly. The former Havre High and current Montana State track star promptly stole second. On the play, the throw rolled into the outfield, allowing Heberly to advance to third.
Three pitches later another ball in the dirt had Heberly trying to advance to home. Heberly, catcher Patch Wirtzberger and Evans all met at home plate on the play. As Heberly tried to evade Wirtzberger's tag, he ran into Evans. The home plate umpire called Evans for obstruction of a base runner and awarded Heberly home plate, which proved to be the winning run.
"You know that's a tough way to win the game," Smith said. "You hate to see it come down to an umpire's decision. From what I understand it was the right call. It was a big play. Steve really manufactured that run for us with his speed, and we got a little lucky."
Gallery had a chance to tie the game in the bottom of the seventh as Cal Wirtzberger singled to lead off the inning. He was replaced by pinch runner Marc Mariani, who promptly stole second.
However, he was stranded there as Divish induced a fly-ball out for the second out and got Solomon to ground out to short to end the game.
Master Sports' only hit came from Andy Anderson. Evans was dominant, striking out 13 batters in the game.
"It's a lot more fun being Gary's teammate than trying to hit off of him," said Divish, who was three-time strike out victim. "I always knew that hitting off him was tough, but everything he throws is just so explosive. He really made us look bad at the plate."
In the next game, Taco John's knocked off Gigglin' Grizzly of Billings 5-4 in loser-out action, it would ensure that Havre would finish in the top three for the first time in recent state tournament history, and it set up a showdown between Gallery and Taco John's in a loser-out semifinal with the right to face Master Sports with the state championship on the line.
And while veteran Havre pitcher John Shennum had also been outstanding all weekend, the Taco John's bats went silent in the semifinal contest and the Gallery's did not. The Gallery banged out four first inning runs off of Taco John's starter Matt Kretchmer and never looked back as they knocked TJ's out of the tournament by an 11-1 score. Fast-pitch veteran Bob Evans Jr. pitched a solid game for the Gallery Lounge, limiting Taco John's to a handful of hits.
Everybody got into the hitting act for the Gallery Lounge in that game, led by brothers Patch and Danny Wirtzberger, who each went 3-for-3 on the day. TJ's did get a pair of hits, including a long home run, by former Havre native Eddie Holgate.
Gallery had little trouble advancing to Sunday's first semifinal game. They wasted little time in the opening round, cruising past L.A. Olson of Billings 8-0 in five innings. They then knocked off a good Silver Dollar team 4-3 in Saturday night's quarterfinal.
Taco John's had a long weekend, starting with an impressive 12-1 win in Friday night's opening game. They then came up short against Master Sports in the second round with a 9-1 loss. Smith got the start on the mound for Master Sports and responded with sparkling performance, holding Taco John's to just one hit in six innings.
TJ's continued to work through the loser's bracket, defeating Aspen Sound 11-9 and then getting the big 5-3 win over Silver Dollar. They advanced to the second semifinal with a 5-4 win over Gigglin' Grizzly.
"Some people were surprised that Taco John's got third," Divish said. "But really John Shennum has always been good at the state tournament. The last two times they made the state tournament, they got third. They played a lot of games and just scrapped out some tough wins."
Master Sports' road to the semifinals was fairly uneventful. Smith got another start on the mound in Saturday night's quarterfinal against Reichenbach of Billings. He pitched another good game, allowing just two runs in four innings. Divish pitched a scoreless fifth. Smith ripped a big home run to lead Master Sports' offense with Ricky Brown, Divish and Steve Heberly all collecting multiple hits.
"Having Andy pitch those first two games basically won the tournament for us," Divish said. "It makes such a big difference. The last two years, Andy has pitched that first game for us and got wins. This year he gets two wins. I really didn't have to throw a pitch on Saturday, which kept me fresh for Sunday. Andy really has come a long way with his pitching."
Even though both the Gallery and Taco John's bids to unseat the now three-time defending state champions came up just short in Havre this past weekend, the fact that all three Havre teams found so much success at home is what Smith said will make this year's state tournament so memorable.
"I think that the big thing about this tournament is that it was just a really great atmosphere the whole weekend," Smith said. "It was a really big deal for Havre fast pitch and to see all of the faces of some of the guys who used to play the game around the field all weekend, you could just tell it made them happy to see Havre fast pitch still doing so well.
"I have played this game for nearly 12 years and I have been a part of a lot of big state tournament games," he added. "But this championship game was a lot different. The place was just packed and it it was really exciting for all of the Havre people and all of the guys that used to play this game that we all love. It was great to win another state championship, but it was really special that all three Havre teams did so well and that even though it isn't what it used to be, fast pitch is still around and that we can have a great tournament like we did."
Indeed, the Havre trifecta will be something to remember, especially considering that there was very stiff competition in the field by way of Missoula Silver Dollar, led by another pitching standout, Neil Samoy, as well as a couple of hard-hitting Billings clubs. But the young Gallery team led by Evans and the Taco John's team led by the crafty veteran Shennum managed to persevere and show why Havre is still the place where fast-pitch softball reigns supreme.
Master Sports will call themselves best in the state for another year. For Divish, Smith and the Master Sports name it was their sixth title in the last 11 years.
"It never gets old winning these things," Divish said. "But we really had to work to win this one. Gary really is a fast-pitch legend and if those kids on the Gallery keep playing, they'll be winning a title very soon."
Master Sports' season hopefully isn't over either. The team is looking to make its annual trek to one of many different national fast-pitch softball tournaments held around the country later this month. This year, Master Sports hopes head to Mankato, Minn. for the 2005 NAFA World Series tournament on Aug. 25-28.
"This has been a lot of fun to be a part of all these great championships," Smith said. "But this one will stand out because of the fact that it was at home and playing the Gallery in the championship and just all of the excitement surrounding this tournament. It was a really great thing to be a part of."
2005 Men's State Fast-pitch Softball Tournament
Taco John's 12, Billings 1
Reichenbach, Billings 9, Aspen Sound, Missoula 0
Gigglin Grizzly, Billings 11, Bonner Boyz, Missoula 7
Gallery Lounge 8, L.A. Olson 0
Master Sports 9, Taco John's 1
Aspen Sound, Missoula 15, Bonner Boyz, Missoula 6
Silver Dollar, Missoula 14, Gigglin' Grizzly, Billings 1
L.A. Olson 11, Tiny's Tavern, Billings 0
Master Sports 11, Reichenbach, Billings 2
Gallery Lounge 4, Silver Dollar, Missoula 3
Gigglin Grizzly, Billings 10, Reichenbach, Billings 5
Taco John's 11, Aspen Sound, Missoula 9
Taco John's 8, Silver Dollar, Missoula 5
Master Sports 1, Gallery Lounge 0
Taco John's 5, Gigglin' Grizzly, Billings 4
Gallery Lounge 11, Taco John's 1
Master Sports 5, Gallery Lounge 3