COLUMBUS — Most hear the sounds of metal bats and leather gloves and think of summer — it’s always been baseball’s home.
But now, for 21 high schools across the state, including Columbus, spring is baseball season.
"A little nervous, but excited," said Columbus senior Mason Meier. "I haven’t played baseball for a while."
That’s the reality for a lot of Cougars, who are back on a diamond for the first time in years.
"Columbus has a really big baseball program in Little League," said first-year high school head coach Travis West. "They've always fared really well against Billings teams, so they've had success, but without high school baseball, they tend not to play after 12 (years old).”
West has been a Little League coach in Columbus since 2008, but he couldn’t wait to try the new challenge.
"We were pushing our athletic director when we heard about it," he said. "Myself, a lot of the parents, and even community members that didn't have kids in the program went to the School Board and said, 'We want this program. We want to be part of the first year.'"
Columbus is certainly blazing a trail. They’re the only school within 100 miles of Stillwater County playing this year, with division rivals as far west as Butte and as far east as Sidney:
Lone Peak (Big Sky)
Baseball fans in Billings will need to wait a big longer however. Last November, the School Board voted 5-3 against adopting high school baseball, not because they don’t like the game, but because they simply don’t have the money.
"No member on the Board wants to deny kids an opportunity," said SD2 Board Chair Scott McCulloch. "It’s just there’s a fiscal reality we have to deal with."
School District 2 activities director Mark Wahl estimates that it would cost about $100,000 to start baseball at Senior, West, and Skyview. That’s not the problem.
"It would be very difficult (to fundraise), but I think with the support, we could have done it," Wahl said.
The problem is the $125,000-140,000 Wahl estimates it would cost to run the programs each year, money that comes from the district’s General Fund - money that’s needed elsewhere.
"Curriculum materials, daily things that come up, transportation," Wahl said.
"I think what we’re doing with career education needs to be a priority," McCulloch added. "I like what we're doing with kids that are thinking about college. There are a lot of pressures on the budget, not the least of which is dealing with inflation."
Proponents are frustrated because they say they can raise the money privately, but that’s not a road Wahl and McCulloch want to go down.
"Even if you allow general fund money to be raised, it’s going to come back on the District at some point," Wahl said.
"When you have private funding, it becomes soft money," added McCulloch. "Sometimes the folks funding a program can’t come up with it, so you have a decline in the program. If you promise kids something, you should be able to come up with it consistently."
Which Wahl believes will happen eventually.
"I think Billings is a baseball town," he said.
For now, Magic City fans will have to travel 40 miles west down I-90 to watch the only game in town.