It's early July and that means it's the dogs days of American Legion baseball.
For the Havre North Stars, that means one final push before the Northern District Tournament later this month in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
The North Stars have six district games left on their slate, including four straight at home this week.
That home stand starts tonight with a pair of critical conference games against the Lethbridge Miners. The doubleheader gets underway today at 4 at Legion Field.
And today's games with the Miners couldn't be any more important. Havre had been holding the No. 2 spot in the district for much of the season, but three losses in their last four games have slipped the North Stars into a tie for third place in the current league standings.
Last week, Havre split with Fort MacLeod at home, but lost a tough July 4 doubleheader at Medicine Hat. Those two road losses dropped the North Stars to 14-8 in league play, while they are 18-20 overall.
Still, the North Stars can make up plenty of ground tonight. Havre split with the Miners last month in Lethbridge, but the North Stars have a much more veteran team, and for the first time in a while, they should be well rested, having not played since last Wednesday.
Havre head coach Dan Wirtzberger also has the option of starting his two aces today, Brandon Smith and Justin Jensen, since neither have pitched since last week. Smith leads the North Stars in innings pitched, strikeouts and wins, while Jensen has given Havre plenty of quality work as well.
Meanwhile, the Miners are a young, but talented group. Because Lethbridge also fields a Class AA team, the Miners are usually made up
of younger players. However, the North Stars know Lethbridge can hit the ball, and the Miners always play fundamentally sound baseball in the field. So tonight's games will have to be clean in all areas if Havre is to prevail and stay in the race for one of the top seeds at the district tournament.
And while pitching and defense will be key today, the North Stars need to be steady at the plate. Smith, Jensen, Thurman Holsdclaw, Gareth Bernard and Mark Vukasin have all been productive all season long, but younger players like Chris Vukasin, Spencer Ross and David Denny will also need to deliver at the plate today, and for the rest of the season if the North Stars are going to be a solid run into the postseason. And all three aforementioned players have delivered at one time or another this season. Denny, especially, has been hitting the ball well as of late when he's in the lineup.
Today's games against the Miners are also key because the North Stars are close to the end of the regular season. Havre will close out its home schedule on Thursday against the Vauxhall Spurs, then travel to Conrad to wrap up the regular season against the Tri-County Cardinals on Friday. That final six games favors the North Stars as they are already a combined 5-1 against the Miners, Spurs and Cardinals this season.
Today's games against Lethbridge start at 4 and 6 at Legion Field in Havre. Thursday's home finale against the Spurs is set for 1 and 3 p.m. Next weekend, Havre is at the Northern District Tournament in Medicine Hat with just one Class A state tournament berth on the line.