By Bruce Sayler
Head coach Jim LeProwse was right. It was a great season, a great first season. A 12-4 record and two losses by a total of three runs in the state tournament ended it, including the 3-1 defeat by Hamilton in Friday’s late loser-out game.
The result advanced the Broncs into the Saturday morning third-place game against Belgrade at 10 o’clock. Whitefish and Polson will tangle at 1 p.m. to decide Montana’s first high school baseball championship. The state tournament has been going on since Thursday at picturesque 3 Legends Stadium in Butte. Well, not all the games have been played in the palace. The auxiliary field across the lawn from the ballpark at Copper Mountain Sports and Recreation Park was needed for two loser-out games earlier Friday while semifinal-round games were held in the 3 Legends Stadium.
Such availability of facilities made for the grounds being ideal as a venue for the state tourney.
Butte High was closer to a Saturday championship game berth than a simple read of results might hint. The Bulldogs were edged 6-5 in eight innings Thursday by Florence in the first round, then beat Eureka in a Saturday noon loser-out before falling to Hamilton in another close game. Hamilton had to pitch a one-hitter to win it.
Hamilton stunned pre-tourney favorite Belgrade 12-6 on Thursday, then lost 14-3 in the semifinals to Whitefish before recovering to nick Butte High and grant Belgrade a rematch Saturday for the third-place trophy.
“I had an absolute blast coaching these guys,” LeProwse said. “They’re all team-first kids who worked their butts off every day. It was a great season and it didn’t end the way we wanted, but these guys set the bar high for the future of this program.
“I’m going to really miss the seniors, but I’m excited about the juniors coming back.”
Sophomore Taylor Nead pitched six complete innings of one-hit ball for the Broncs before having to yield the mound to reliever Tyce O’Connell in the bottom of the seventh due to the pitch-count limit. O’Connell faced one batter and completed the one-hitter. Butte High designated hitter Zach Tierney’s double in the fourth inning was the Bulldogs’ only hit. It was a one-out drive into the center field that was followed by two groundouts.
The Bulldogs had the first lead. After Butte High starter Aiden Cuchine retired Hamilton’s first three batters in order, Sean Ossello worked a walk to lead off Butte High’s first inning. He stole second base, took third on a balk and crossed homeplate on a sacrifice fly to center field by Kevin Donaldson.
The Bulldogs mounted a couple of threats but didn’t score again.
The Broncs tied the score in the third inning. Andrew Ricklefs smacked a one-out double into the left-center field alley and then Conner Ekin was hit by a pitch. The runners moved up a base on a balk call and Ricklefs then scored the tying run on a wild pitch. Two forceouts ended the inning.
Butte High stranded a runner at third in the third. Alex Jorgensen reached on an error and moved to second base on a perfect sacrifice bunt by Derek Dunmire that died in front of the plate. Ossello was safe on an error that sent Jorgensen to third base with one out. A flyball to short center and a grounder to shortstop snuffed the threat.
Ekin singled to left field with one out in the Hamilton fifth, stole second and ran home when Jacob Westberry’s ground ball was booted in the infield. The Broncs had the lead, 2-1.
Anthony Knott led off the Butte High sixth inning with a walk and stole second base. He was left there, however, when the next three batters struck out, popped up to the infield and grounded out.
In the top of the seventh, the Broncs added their insurance run. Liam O’Connell and Ricklefs started the inning with back-to-back singles. A walk to Ekin loaded the bases. Emerson Widmer popped out to third baseman Jorgensen, but then Westberry lifted a flyball to center field that brought O’Connell home on the sacrifice fly. Butte High reliver Tyler Duffy whiffed Atticus Southwell for the third out.
Butte High’s last hope in the bottom of the seventh flickered when Dunmire drew a two-out walk. He exhausted the few remaining pitches in Nead’s quota, summoning Tyce McConnell to the mound. He got the last out on a bunted popup.
Cuchine and Duffy combined on a five-hitter for the Bulldogs.
“We just didn’t hit,” LeProwse said. “We had a few mistakes, made what? One error? (Scorer charged two.) But our hitting wasn’t there. Their pitchers did a good job of keeping us off balance.
“We were letting pitchers get ahead of us in the count. We usually get the first-pitch fastball and drive it, and we didn’t do that today. We seemed tentative. “
LeProwse gave that the Bulldogs seemed to feel the immensity of the tournament maybe more than other players revealed and that it being on their homefield may have enhanced and heightened the emotions. Still, he said he liked playing it here.
“We got a great crowd to our games,” he said. “The city, the people of Butte supported us and the kids and I want to thank them for that.”
LeProwse will welcome them back to the field on Monday when tryouts start for the Butte Miners American Legion baseball program begin. Their first games will be in a tournament next weekend at 3 Legends Stadium. LeProwse took the Miners to the Class A district, state and regional crowns last year.