North Stars ready for the Northern District
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The Havre American Legion baseball team's journey began back in the cold and windy days of April. It's been a long trek, but the goal has remained constant — make the 2010 Class A state tournament.
Now, that goal sits just a few wins away as the North Stars begin postseason play at the Northern District Tournament in Fort MacLeod, Alberta.
Havre (17-8) begins its march towards the state tournament Thursday at 11:30
a. m. when the North Stars face seventhseeded Medicine Hat (12-16).
The North Stars enter tournament play having played their best baseball of the season. Havre won seven of its last eight league games and 11 of its last 12 overall. The strong July push helped the North Stars earn the No. 2 seed in this week's tournament, and in turn, that should give them a favorable draw as they try to reach next week's state tournament in Billings.
And veteran Havre head coach Steve Fanning knows if his team continues to play solid baseball this week, there could very well be a next week.
"Mainly I just hope that we continue to play the quality of ball that we have for the month of July," Fanning said.
"We packed in quite a few games over the last two weeks and I think that will work to our benefit. We have seen that our pitchers can be productive on short rest, and that we can play a lot of games if we need to. It's been a while since we have placed this high in conference standings and it feels good to be back at the top. However, once tourney time comes around, the season starts over and we see who really wants it."
Pitching is going to be key to Havre's success, especially in the first game against the Knights. If Havre can get a great start from Brandon Smith on Thursday, it will set the rotation for the rest of the tournament, and a key to any baseball tournament is having your best pitchers available from game-togame.
Havre is looking at a three-man starting rotation this weekend with Smith, Roman Surber and Kyle Miller, but one thing the North Stars have is some pitching depth. They can also turn to CJ Evans, Justin Jensen, Mark Vukasin, Shane Kemmer and Spencer Morkrid.
But pitching hasn't been a problem for Havre at any point this season.
North Star pitchers have fared well against conference opponents all year. If Havre gets its usual pitching, a district title, and or a spot in the state tournament will likely come down to defense and timely hitting. Those are two area in which the North Stars have been inconsistent at times, but have also been doing well in July.
Jensen, Miller and Smith and Evans have been the heart of Havre's lineup all season long. Smith and Miller have combined to crack 12 homeruns this season with Miller knocking a leaguehigh eight out of the park. The duo also combines to lead the team in RBIs. The addition of Kemmer has also changed Havre's hitting. Since Kemmer returned to the North Stars, he's been on fire at the plate, leading the team in average and on-base percentage. But the rest of Havre's lineup will need to contribute as well. Vukasin is another solid all-around hitter and Surber has been hitting well in the month of July.
Adam Briese is a veteran player and has had a knack for the big hit this season, while Brayden Grimson has went through stretches as Havre's most consistent hitter this year.
"I feel that our conference has been the most competitive this year and it's anyone's to win," Fanning said. "It will probably come down to who can put a run together. Hopefully we'll continue to do that. Our pitching has got it done all year and I'm confident that they will step it up this weekend. It will come down to playing defense and getting big hits. That will be the difference in a championship and an early exit."
And Havre has made some early exits from district tournaments in recent years. The North Stars won just once in last year's postseason, and they are hoping to reverse that trend this weekend. But it won't be easy. The Great Falls Electrics (21-5) are a heavy favorite this week, as they open with the one-win Great Falls Stallions. But Lethbridge, Fort MacLeod, Medicine Hat and last year's district champion, Tri-County could all have a say in what happens in this district tournament.
The first round commences on Thursday morning with Lehtbridge (17-10) facing Vauxhall (12-16). After Havre's game with Medicine Hat, the Electrics and Stallion meet at 2:30 p.m. The final game of the first round pits Tri-County (13-14) against host Fort MacLeod (15-12).
There are four game son tap for Saturday and two on Sunday. The district championship game is set for 2 p.m. Sunday and the top two teams from the tournament will advance to next week's state tourney in Billings.
"Looking forward to a very competitive tournament," Fanning said. "I hope these boys understand how far they have come and how close they are to bringing North Star baseball back to familiar territory, the state tournament."