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High school baseball: Year 2 affords teams, MHSA chance to smooth the edges

Baseball generic
Posted at 4:42 PM, Mar 28, 2024

BILLINGS — The first year of high school baseball in Montana was a grand experiment, one that ultimately succeeded last spring despite crummy weather, varying degrees of roster uncertainty and the "unknown" factor that loomed over it all.

In the end, the undertaking worked. The season was played, a state tournament was contested and Polson captured the first championship ever awarded by the Montana High School Association.

Year 2, which is already under way across the state, gives participating teams and the MHSA another chance to smooth the edges.

"I would say it's on more solid footing, just because 1) we do have a lot of teams that have that experience under their belt from last year, and the new teams have picked (it) up quickly and are learning the ins and the outs," said MHSA associate director and baseball liaison Scott Wilson.

"And 2), in terms of the weather we are already in a better spot than we were last year. We've played quite a few games. We're not in the same situation as an entire state. Some places still have snow on the ground, but I don't think we're going to end up having teams (that) didn't have the snow gone until the middle of April."

In terms of participation, new teams have joined the fray for 2024, including Bigfork, Ronan and Livingston-Big Timber.

Thompson Falls signed up to play last season but didn't have enough players and opted out. This year the team is a cooperative with Noxon. St. Ignatius played on its own last season but will be joined this season by Arlee.

In all, 30 schools comprising 24 teams are expected to compete in four divisions. Wilson said East Helena, which was in the Southwest division last year, has moved to the East while Butte and Butte Central have moved from the East to the Southwest. Also, Plains-Hot Springs, which competed last year, will not play this year.

Following is the division structure for 2024 (new teams and/or new co-ops are indicated in bold):

East
Belgrade
East Helena
Columbus
Livingston-Big Timber
Lone Peak
Sidney-Fairview

Southwest
Butte
Butte Central
Dillon-Twin Bridges
Corvallis
Florence-Carlton
Hamilton-Darby
Stevensville

West
Frenchtown
Polson
Ronan
St. Ignatius-Arlee
Thompson Falls-Noxon

Northwest
Bigfork
Browning
Columbia Falls
Eureka
Troy
Whitefish

With participation still located heavily in the western half of the state, Wilson said travel challenges remain, especially for a team like Sidney-Fairview, a major outlier near the Montana/North Dakota state line.

Wilson said that could be remedied to a degree next year with more eastern teams expected to join — including Billings Central, Billings Senior, Billings Skyview, Billings West and Laurel, which Wilson said has also approved the addition of baseball.

(Missoula's public schools are also expected to play baseball in the spring of 2025.)

Meanwhile, for the second consecutive year the MHSA will hold an eight-team all-class state tournament. This year's tourney will be held May 16-18 at Ogren Park in Missoula. The bracket will again resemble the basketball state-tournament model.

But there is one twist to the postseason this year: Rather than automatically giving the top-two teams from each division automatic state tournament berths based on the regular-season standings, Wilson said cross-divisional play-in games will decide four of those tourney berths.

"The No. 1 teams from each division will automatically qualify for state," Wilson said. "But the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds will play cross-conference, and the winner of those games will make the state tournament. So the third-place team now has a postseason chance, too."

Wilson indicated that the umpire situation might be a bit more settled this year with "quite a few" umpires signing up.

In terms of pitch counts, Wilson said the same rules will apply this year: Varsity pitchers aren't permitted to throw more than 110 pitches in a game or a day, and aren't allowed beyond 100 pitches over two consecutive days.

Wilson said the MHSA still has the goal of splitting its baseball-playing teams into three classifications in the future — Class AA, A and B-C, such as it is in softball. But this season will look similar to last year, only there's greater awareness for all involved.

"Going forward this year we understand a little bit more about some of the hurdles, and I think the schools have a better understanding of where their programs are and what their rosters look like," Wilson said.

"I like where we're at. We could be in the mid-30s for the number of (participating) schools next year. That also presents new opportunities and new challenges that we'll have to work through, but we are starting to see growth and we are excited about that."