There isn’t a single team the Havre North Stars American Legion baseball team hasn’t beat in the Northern A District this season. In fact, the North Stars have beaten every team in their division at least twice this summer.
And that’s why, despite falling to the No. 4 seed, the North Stars and head coach Danny Wirtzberger are supremely confident heading into the 2012 Northern District Tournament in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
ded North Stars (16-12, 21-32) open tournament play Thursday at 9 a.m. against the Lethbridge Miners, the No. 5 seed, at Athletic Park in Medicine Hat.
Havre hovered near the top of the Northern standings for much of the season, but the North Stars split their last eight conference games, falling from second to fourth after splitting with Tri-County on Saturday in Conrad. Had Havre swept, the North Stars would have taken the No. 2 seed into Thursday’s tournament.
“We feel very confident going in,” Wirtzberger said. “We have beaten everybody at least twice and the standings ended up pretty close. So we know we can play with every team in the tournament. We just have to play well.”
For much of the summer, Havre has played very well. Offensively, the North Stars are among the top three teams in the district in batting average and runs per game. The top of Havre’s lineup, with veterans Brandon Smith, Justin Jensen, Mark Vukasin and Gareth Bernard, along with the likes of Thurman Holdsclaw, Chris Vukasin and David Denny have all hit the ball well for much of the season and that should continue this weekend in Medicine Hat.
Havre has also been a solid defensive club for much of the season, so the key to the North Stars’ state tournament hopes really rests with their pitching staff. Havre doesn’t have a lot of depth in its rotation, and the district tournament features nine-inning games, so North Star starters will have to go deep into games if Havre is to make a serious run at the district title, which is most likely the only way they’ll earn a state tourney berth because the Great Falls Electrics have an automatic bid to state as the tournament host.
“We’re going to have to pretty much win it to get in,” Wirtzberger said. “That’s kind of the way it looks. It’s tough when only one team gets in, and that’s what we’re all facing. So it’s going to be a difficult tournament because there are a lot of solid teams in our conference. But we feel good about what we’ve accomplished this season. This team has really been great to coach and they are really learning to play as a team. So we’re going to just play one game at a time and see where we end up.”
And one game at a time really starts with the pitching.
Havre will likely start Jensen in Thursday’s opener against the Miners, a team the North Stars are 2-2 against this season. If Havre wins, the North Stars will face either top-seeded Fort MacLeod, who the North Stars are also 2-2 against, or eighth-seeded Great Falls Stallions, a team the North Stars are 5-0 against this year. That winner’s bracket game will take place Friday at 3 p.m. Should the North Stars fall, they’ll play the loser of the Royals/Stallions game at Friday at 9 a.m. The North Stars will likely start Smith if they face the Royals, while Mark Vukasin, Spencer Morkrid and Tyrell Pierce will also be called upon to handle plenty of the pitching duties the deeper the North Stars go in this weekend’s tourney. There is an innings’ limit in the tournament and pitchers can only make three total appearances, so managing the staff is critical for every team in the conference.
On the other side of the bracket, the Electrics will take on Tri-County at 3 p.m. Thursday, while the third-seeded Vauxhall Spurs face the sixth-seeded Medicine Hat Knights play at 6:30 p.m. Thursday night. Friday’s schedule includes a pair of winner’s bracket games at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., as well as loser-out games at 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. Saturday’s loser-out games will be played at 9 a.m. and 12 p.m., while the winner's bracket semifinal will be played at 3 p.m. Saturday’s loser-out bracket semifinal will take place at 7 p.m. and the third-place game is set for 10 a.m. in Sunday. The district championship game will be played at 3 p.m. Sunday with an “if necessary game” scheduled for Monday at 11 a.m. Again, if the Great Falls Electrics do not win the tournament, the district champion will go to the Class A state tournament next weekend in Great Falls. If the Electrics reach the title game, the other participant in the championship game will gain the second bid the state tourney.
“This has been a great season, and these are great kids to coach,” Wirtzberger said. “Our goal is to go up there and play well and try to get to state. But we’re not going to base this season as not successful if we don’t get there. This is a great group of kids who love the game of baseball and we’ve already had a very successful season in my opinion.”
The North Stars play Lethbridge in the opening round of the Northern District Tournament at 9 a.m. Thursday morning in Medicine Hat.
North Star baseball fans can follow Havre's progress at the 2012 Northern A District Tournament with the Havre Daily News on twitter at twitter.com/havredaily and online at www.havredailynews.com. The tournament also has a website with a live gametracker at www.baseballmedhat.com