School board approves play beginning next spring
By Bill Foley
The Butte High Bulldogs are officially in the baseball game, and the Butte Central Maroons just might be the next team to join the party.
The Butte school district voted to move forward with plans to play baseball, starting with the 2023 season, Bulldog Activities Director Chuck Merrifield confirmed Friday.
The Montana High School approved baseball as a sanctioned event earlier in the school year.
Merrifield said many details need to be worked out, but he is optimistic high school baseball will take off in Butte.
“There’s going to be some tough parts to it, but it will be fun to watch it,” Merrifield said. “Kids who don’t want to give up their summer can play baseball.”
Don Peoples Jr., the president of Butte Central Schools, said baseball is a possibility for the Maroons, too.
“We are exploring it,” Peoples said. “Our board is in a study phase. We’ve done a participation survey of our students, and we think there’s strong interest in a program, too. Our big challenge now will be on how we’re going to fund it.”
The MHSA also approved eighth grade students playing in high school contests this past school year. Peoples said that could help start the BC baseball program.
“Right now, there’s strong interest with our students,” Peoples said. “We have the ability now to have eighth graders play. So, there’s adequate number of kids to make the program.”
Peoples said he expects a decision for baseball at BC by the end of June.
Merrifield said the Bulldogs have a verbal agreement in place to use Miners Field at 3 Legends Stadium, which is the current home of the Butte American Legion teams the Miners and Muckers.
Presumably, baseball season will run from around April 1 and into Memorial Day weekend, like softball, track and tennis. This season, the Legion teams played their first games on May 7, so some schedule shifting will likely have to take place.
“If everybody is flexible, good things can happen, hopefully,” Merrifield said.
Jeff LeProwse wrapped up his 10-year run as head coach of the Miners last season. He is the president of the Butte program, and he said the Miners and Muckers back high school baseball in the Mining City.
“I think it’s a great thing,” LeProwse said. “We’re 100 percent behind it. We’re not going to try to conflict with it all.”
Last summer, the Legion program clashed with the Mining City Tommyknockers, an Expedition League team that folded up in a mismanagement calamity last August. LeProwse said he sees no issue with sharing with high school teams.
“The board and I are 100 percent behind the Butte kids using our stuff,” LeProwse said.
As far as scheduling goes, LeProwse said starting Legion games in June will not be a problem. He said the Miners did not play one conference game before June in any of his seasons as coach.
With the approval this week, Butte High joins Belgrade as the only Class AA school to approve baseball for next season. Merrifield said Missoula is still considering baseball, but Helena and Billings are two Class AA cities that have passed for now.
So, it appears the inaugural high school baseball season in Montana will be a one-classification league, with more than 10 teams already signed on.
“It’s going to have to be, unless Butte and Belgrade play 18 times,” Merrifield said with a laugh.
Like with softball, Butte High will likely go with two teams in the program.
“I would think that’s what we’re looking at right now, JV and varsity,” Merrifield said. “First you have to see numbers.”
When softball has had turnout in the high 30s over the years, players had to be cut. If baseball had had two sub-varsity teams and softball only had one, Title IX issues could arise.
Merrifield added that the addition of baseball makes the numbers of boys’ and girls’ programs at Butte High equal. The school added girls’ wrestling during the 2020-21 school year, and the plan was to add power lifting for boys.
Power lifting plans have since dissipated. In addition, Merrifield said that girls’ flag football will be a thing at Butte High this fall, even though it will not yet be a full MHSA sport.
“If they make that a sport, girls will be one up again,” Merrifield said of the number of sports offered. “As of right now, they’re equal.
“We’re going to play some games next year,” Merrifield added of girls’ flag football. “It will be interesting if they will make it a full-fledged sport in the next few years.”
As far as Legion baseball being hurt by high school baseball, well, LeProwse and Merrifield are thinking the opposite will happen.
“I don’t see it killing it. I see it helping it,” LeProwse said. “You’re going to see a lot of kids who play high school baseball who want to do camps (in the summer). That’s good. It’s still kids playing baseball.
“You might get other kids who play and then say, ‘I want to play in the summer.’ That’s what I’m hoping. It’s definitely going to affect Legion. But I think it’s in a positive way.”
Merrifield said Butte High will officially open the head coaching baseball position in the next couple of months.