Havre Daily News Sports Editor
Even with the early conference losses, even with parity in the league, even with six losses in their last nine games, even with their own manager admitting that the Northern District tournament title was far from a given, the Havre Northstars brought another conference tournament championship.
More importantly, they earned a berth in the Montana Class A State American Legion baseball tournament, which starts this week in Sidney.
The Northstars won their fifth straight Northern District tournament championship in resounding fashion, crushing the Vauxhall Spurs 12-5 on a picturesque Sunday afternoon at Legion Field.
Havre banged out 12 hits, took advantage of five Vauxhall errors and got a solid pitching performance from Chase Castloo to secure the championship.
"I'm really happy with the way we played this weekend," said Northstars head coach Mickey Williams. "We started off a little shaky in our opening game against Fort MacLeod, but after that I thought we played much better baseball than we have in the last three weeks."
It wasn't just in the championship game where the Northstars played well. Their run of good baseball started on Friday with an impressive 12-5 win over the Lethbridge Miners in the quarterfinals.
Havre started off slowly, falling behind 4-1 going into the bottom of the fifth inning. The Northstars cut the lead in half as John Christian reached on an error and later scored on a balk call on Lethbridge starter Corey Gerstenbuhler. Havre took its first lead of the game an inning later when two straight walks from Gerstenbuhler were followed by a two-run double by Ben Erickson. Austin Small plated Erickson with a single to right to give Havre a 5-4 lead.
Lethbridge tied the game at five in the top of the sixth on a Northstar error.
Havre retook the lead for good in the bottom of the sixth on a Tibbals RBI single. The Northstars put the game away in the seventh with a six-run outburst. Josh Lowe ripped an RBI double, Sean Peterson added an RBI single, while Chase Castloo and Tibbals drew bases-loaded walks.
A 12-5 lead was more than enough for Small, who relieved Erickson in the fourth and was dominant at the end. Small pitched final five innings and allowed just one run on four hits and struck out four Miner hitters.
"Ben just wasn't very sharp," Williams said. "He was having trouble locating his fastball and was falling behind hitters. We went to Austin in relief and he did a good job. He came in and threw strikes and kept us in the game."
Erickson led the way offensively with two hits and three runs driven in. Small and Lowe each had two hits and drove in a run.
The win advanced the Northstars to Saturday's semifinal against second-seeded Vauxhall with the winner earning an automatic berth into the state tournament besides the championship game. At the beginning, it didn't appear that Mother Nature was favoring the Northstars. A stiff west wind was blowing directly to right field, which would only help Vauxhall's slew of left-handed hitters.
However, the wind blowing out meant nothing to Northstar starting pitcher Sean Peterson, who quieted the Spur bats in an 8-5 win.
Havre grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first inning on an RBI single by Small. Vauxhall tied the game an inning later on a fielder's choice.
The Northstars went up 3-1 in the second on a pair of Vauxhall errors that led to two runs.
Vauxhall chipped away at the lead, scoring a run in top of the third and tying the game at three in the sixth.
However, Havre answered immediately with a run in the seventh on a Lowe sacrifice fly and two more in the eighth on a Lowe RBI single and a sac fly from Bryden Vukasin.
The Spurs simply wouldn't go away. They took their first lead of the game in the top of the eighth. T.J. Howg and Travis Senkow led off with singles and later scored on Jaden Odland's double down the left-field line. Peterson managed to work out of the jam, allowing just the two runs.
"Vauxhall's a good hitting team," Williams said. "They're going to get their hits and score runs, you just have to limit your mistakes and not allow big innings."
The Spurs' lead would be short-lived as Havre put the game away in the bottom half of the eighth with a four-run rally. Lowe had an RBI single and Chase Castloo and Vukasin each had sacrifice flies in the inning. Vauxhall also committed a pair of costly errors in the inning.
With a three-run lead, Peterson shut down the Spurs in order in the ninth to secure the win and earn the berth in the championship game and more importantly the Class A state tournament.
"Winning that game really takes a load off your shoulders because you know you've qualified for the state tournament," Williams said. "I thought we played a pretty good game. Sean did a nice job on the mound and we actually outhit them, which isn't an easy thing to do."
Peterson went the distance, allowing five runs on eight hits, while striking out three batters and walking just four. Lowe led the Northstars' offense with three hits and two RBIs, while Wirtzberger and Small had two hits each.
The championship rematch with the Spurs lacked the drama of the semifinal. Vauxhall's pitching was clearly depleted, having had to defeat Fort MacLeod in the loser-out semifinal to advance to the championship.
The Northstars took advantage. Havre jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning when Small was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and John Christian delivered an RBI single off Vauxhall starter Clay Turcato.
The Northstars stamped six more runs on the scoreboard in the fourth inning. Erickson delivered a two-run single, Small drove in a run with a hard ground ball, but the big hit came from Peterson, who slammed a 2-0 pitch off of reliever Jaden Odland, to the right center gap with the bases loaded, clearing the bases.
"Sean came up with a big hit in that situation," Williams said. "He hit the ball hard all weekend."
The eight-run cushion was more than enough for Castloo, who fought threw some early control problems, to settle in a nice groove on the mound.
Vauxhall finally got to Castloo in the sixth. Ryan Hutchison and T.J. Howg hit back-to-back singles to start the inning. Hutchison scored on a passed ball, while Howg scored on a fielder's choice. Castloo was able to get the next two batters to end the inning.
Havre tacked on some late runs. Tibbals had an RBI single and Scott Ladenburg scored on a Wirtzberger single.
Castloo pitched all nine innings, allowing just the two runs on seven hits. He struck out six batters, but walked five.
"I get on Chase about getting ahead in the count and not walking people," Williams said. "He's just so much more effective when he does that. Once he started getting ahead in the middle innings, he really shut them down."
Tibbals finished the game 4-for-6 with two runs scored and an RBI. Wirtzberger had three hits, while Erickson and Peterson chipped in with two hits each.
While winning the last five titles may have become old hat to Williams, he was still elated that his team met one of its preseason goals.
"One of the goals we set at the beginning of every season is to win the conference and make it to state," Williams said. "To accomplish that is very big. I'm proud of the kids for coming out and playing hard.
"We got behind a few times, but fought back. Even though we've made it to state pretty consistently the last few years, it's still an achievement."
As the Northern District champions, Havre will receive a first-round bye in the state tournament and will playSaturday at 4 p.m. Vauxhall will face the host team, the Richland County Patriots, on Friday at 7 p.m.
Northstars 12, Miners 5
Lethbridge Miners 020 201 000 - 5 9 5
Havre Northstars 001 131 60X - 12 10 2
Corey Gerstenbuhler (6), Paul Kelly and Jordan Purchinger; Ben Erickson (3), Austin Small and Patch Wirtzberger.
WP - Small; LP - Gerstenbuhler.
MINERS HITTING - Jeff Wilson 1-4 (RBI); Matt Weninger 0-1; Kyle Rokosh 0-3; Kurtis Kaskiw 0-3; Braden Horon 0-4; Corey Gerstenbuhler 1-4 (RBI); Aaron Groves 1-3; Brock Fulkerth 3-4 (RBI); Jordan Purchinger 1-3 (RBI); Adrian Diakow 1-1; Cody Persinger 0-1; Beau Barthel 0-1; Colton Bareshinebone 0-1; Joel Dragland 1-1.
NORTHSTARS HITTING - Jeff Tibbals 1-3 (2 RBI); Patch Wirtzberger 1-3 (RBI); Josh Lowe 2-4 (RBI); Ben Erickson 2-4 (3 RBI); Austin Small 2-4 (RBI); John Christian 0-4; Chase Castloo 0-2; Eric Fanning 0-2; Sean Peterson 1-2 (RBI); Scott Ladenburg 0-1; Bryden Vukasin 1-2.
2B - Lowe, Erickson, Gerstenbuhler
3B - none
HR - none
Northstars 8, Spurs 5
Vauxhall Spurs 011 001 020 - 5 8 4
Havre Northstars 120 000 14X - 8 10 2
Phil Vilay (7), Brendan Odland and Zach Rhodes; Sean Peterson and Patch Wirtzberger
WP - Peterson; LP - Vilay.
SPURS HITTING - Brendan Odland 0-5; Ryan Hutchison 0-5; T.J. Howg 1-3; Travis Senkow 2-3;; Brendan Miller 1-3 (RBI); Jaden Odland 2-3 (2 RBI); Damon Howg 2-4 (2 RBI); Ryan Williams 0-2; Zach Rhodes 0-3; Brett Conrad 0-2.
NORTHSTARS HITTING - Jeff Tibbals 0-3; Patch Wirtzberger 2-3; Josh Lowe 3-3 (2 RBI); Ben Erickson 1-5 (RBI); Austin Small 2-4 (RBI); John Christian 1-2; Josh Morse 0-2; Eric Fanning 0-2; Bryden Vukasin 1-3 (RBI).
2B - J. Odland
3B - none
HR - none
Northstars 11, Spurs 2
Vauxhall Spurs 000 002 000 - 2 7 3
Havre Northstars 200 611 01X - 11 16 1
Clay Turcato (3), Jaden Odland and Ryan Hutchison; Chase Castloo and Patch Wirtzberger.
WP - Castloo; LP - Turcato.
SPURS HITTING - Brendan Odland 1-3;l Ryan Hutchison 2-5; T.J. Howg 2-4; Travis Senkow 1-3; Damon Howg 0-1; Brett Conrad 0-4; Mike Brown 0-1; Ryan Williams 0-4; Austin Ojala 1-4; Mitch Schaafs 0-1; Phil Vilay 0-2.
NORTHSTARS HITTING - Jeff Tibbals 4-6 (RBI); Patch Wirtzberger 3-6; Josh Lowe 1-5; Ben Erickson 2-3 (2 RBI); Austin Small 1-4 (2 RBI); Josh Morse 1-5; John Christian 1-3 (RBI); Sean Peterson 2-4 (3 RBI); Bryden Vukasin 0-2; Eric Fanning 0-1; Scott Ladenburg 1-2.
2B - none
3B - Peterson
HR - none