State champion Miners were years in the making

State champion Miners were years in the making

On July 19, 2020, the Butte Miners split a home doubleheader with the Bitterroot Red Sox at 3 Legends Stadium.

What stands out about that day was not Ryan Wahl’s two-run home run, his first on his home field and a blast that surprised himself, in the opener.

What is most memorable is how the Red Sox pitcher got the final out in the second game.

Down by two and with two out in the bottom of the seventh, a Butte player hit a come-back shot to the pitcher.

In a move that would ignite a bench-clearing brawl at the college or professional level, the pitcher held the ball out and showed it to the batter as the pitcher jogged toward first base. Then he flipped the ball to the first baseman for the final out.

This did not sit well with the small group of Miners fans, or anybody who respects the great game, for that matter.

A few minutes later, the coaches for each team sent their players out for a short team post-game jog around the outfield, sending the teams on a collision course in center field.

It was almost a huge strategic blunder by the coaches because the group of Miners included Eyston Lakkala, a tough-as-nails player who never takes any crap off of anybody.

Lakkala, rightfully angry about the bush league move by the pitcher, was restrained just in time to stop a huge fight in the middle of the outfield. Peace was kept, but not before Lakkala got his say on the situation.

While nobody would ever want to see Legion baseball players fighting another team, it was hard to not see the Miners rejection of the pitcher’s antics as a sign that the Butte boys just might be onto something.

That team was full of character, characters, heart and talent. The Miners ended up putting together the best Butte baseball season in years, and they came within a game of qualifying for the Class A State tournament.

That feistiness and grit carried over to 2021, when the Miners again played a great baseball season. Again, they finished a game short of the State tournament.

For two straight years, the Miners knocked on the door at the big dance. In 2022, they kicked the damn thing down, winning the Class A State title with one lopsided win after another.

They gave the Mining City its first state championship since Jim Kello’s boys won it all in 1953.

Along the way, the Miners ignited an excitement for baseball that this town has not seen since Cecil Fielder was hitting moonshot home runs for the 1982 Butte Copper Kings.

Unfortunately, Lakkala was not part of this year’s team at the end. The Butte Central graduate, who is taking his talents to the Montana Tech football team, started the season with the Miners. He pitched six and a third innings to pick up a win — against the Bitterroot Red Sox, no less — before tearing up his shoulder diving for a ball.

Still, Lakkala is very much a part of Butte’s run to the state championship. He was part that great team’s creation.

So, too, were guys like Wahl, Kian O’Neill, Reece Cox, Ethan Edwards, Coyt Stajcar, Hunter Hotalen, Max Demarais and Rylan Richards, just to name a few.

Cox and O’Neill, just a year removed from their Legion days, helped coach the Miners and Muckers this season, so they were very much at the heart of this magical 2022 team.

Another key player is Muckers head coach Dyllan “Kruk” Lane, who might be the only Miner to never play a single game at 3 Legends Stadium or Alumni Coliseum.

The 2022 State champion Butte Miners are a team that is a product of its history, recent and ancient. They are a team well aware of the history of Butte baseball players who gave it their all and came up short for decades.

It was as if these current Miners have been playing for generations of Miners they have never met since the last Butte state title 69 years ago.

The nearly seven title-less decades always seemed to be on the team’s mind, but not in a weighing-down fashion like a phony curse. These boys showed a deep pride in the history of their hometown throughout.

They are also really fun to watch.

“No matter what happens, I’m so proud of these guys,” Butte coach Jim LeProwse said hours before his team clinched a berth in the state championship game. “They brought excitement for baseball to Butte like we haven’t seen in a long, long time.”

More notably, these are playing for the men and boys who kept the program alive when so many other forces were trying to kill it off.

Jeff LeProwse is the unofficial “Fourth Legend” of 3 Legends Stadium. Without question, American Legion baseball would have left the Mining City — maybe never to return — had LeProwse not been so hellbent on saving it.

LeProwse, who is just fine playing Buck Showalter to his brother Jim’s Joe Torre, took over the Miners in 2012. Soon after, the Miners received word that they would no longer have a stadium. The Montana Tech football turf project meant the Miners would have to leave Alumni Coliseum, a place they had called home for decades.

While the turf ended up being delayed until 2013 and the Miners were allowed one more season in their old home, the damage was done. Not wanting to play in a Little League field at Copper Mountain Park, many players left the program.

The Miners were down to just 11 players, and they were not very competitive. But with LeProwse calling the shots, they still played a season.

The next year, the Miners had no home and only a couple players more. Montana’s Legion brass, though, would not let the Miners play in the Class A.

The classifications are made by the number of boys in 10th through 12th grade in the local schools. Butte had something like 19 boys too many.

The Montana Legion officials could have made an exception for the Miners, extending a lifeline to a struggling program. It could have done the right thing to help a struggling program.

Coaches and administrators who care more about winning than they do about the game, however, chose not to. Instead, they offered a foot on the head of a drowning team.

So, the Miners played a non-conference schedule against some Class A and Class B teams. At the end of the season, LeProwse took them to a Little League tournament in the Seattle area.

That was the first of four seasons on Field 4 at Copper Mountain Park, and that the team played at all just might make it the most important Miners team of all time.

Field 4 is not terrible. It will make a great practice field for Butte High or Butte Central. It is not a game field, however.

Little League officials in town apparently agree.

When the city Senior Little League tournament rolled around this year, they decided to move the tournament to Anaconda and play at Washoe Park instead.

Thanks to the work of Jeff LeProwse and a handful of other devoted souls, including Mark Hislop, 3 Legends Stadium opened in 2017.

With that, Butte suddenly had one of the best Legion stadiums in the state, and the Miners started to get better and better.

After 10 years as head coach, Jeff LeProwse, who is still the president of the Miners, stepped aside to hand the job to his older brother.

Jim LeProwse took a really good team and made it great, with his exciting brand of baseball added to the mix.

For the first time in years, Butte folks crowded a stadium to watch baseball. For the first time in generations, it was to watch the local boys.

The hometown crowd cheered the Miners on during the South A District tournament in Butte. They followed the boys to Belgrade for State. Many will likely follow them to Utah for the regional tournament later this week.

The 2022 has been a magical season for the Miners and baseball in Butte.

It is a season and a team that was years in the making, and it was certainly worth the wait.

— Bill Foley, who doesn’t like to wait, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.

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2 Comments

  • Kristi Peterson
    August 2, 2022, 8:36 pm

    One question… why hasn’t Butte moved back up to AA after three great years of baseball, a stellar 2022 team, a new stadium, and a high school population of more than 1,000?

    REPLY
    • Bill Foley@Kristi Peterson
      August 2, 2022, 8:45 pm

      Butte’s enrollment numbers put them in Class A. They are less than 1,000 sophomores through seniors, that the cutoff. It looks as if Butte might have to move up to Class AA next year, but it will be close.

      REPLY

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