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With bracket set, Montana high school state baseball tournament ready for second act

Ogren Park at Allegiance Field
Posted at 5:13 PM, May 14, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-14 19:13:51-04

BILLINGS — Baseball's sophomore year as a sanctioned Montana High School Association activity will culminate this weekend with the state tournament beginning Thursday at Ogren Park at Allegiance Field in Missoula.

The eight-team bracket was cemented Monday with the conclusion of the last two (of four) play-in games, and the MHSA, which has helped foster the sport through uncharted waters since last spring, is set to dole out championship hardware for the second time in state history.

"I think the overall competition level is going to be outstanding," said MHSA associate director and baseball liaison Scott Wilson. "When you look at the games throughout the year, there are a lot of teams that have beat each other and they're going to be playing each other in this. So it should be a very exciting weekend.

"And, and as anybody knows, it's going to be about who gets hot for those three days."

Belgrade and Whitefish will get the tournament started Thursday at 11 a.m., followed by Eureka vs. Florence at 1:30 p.m. Polson, the defending state champion, will face Butte at 4 while Hamilton and Columbia Falls will tangle at 6:30.

The aforementioned cross-divisional play-in games to decide four at-large state tournament berths were a new wrinkle for baseball in Year 2, and those berths were won by Whitefish, Eureka, Butte and Hamilton. The other four teams qualified for state by virtue of winning their respective divisions.

There was a big logjam at the end of the regular season in the East division due to a four-way tie for third place between Sidney-Fairview, Columbus, Lone Peak and East Helena.

The tiebreaker, based upon run differential in matchups between the tied teams, went to Lone Peak, which then went on to lose its play-in matchup with Hamilton last Saturday, 2-1.

Wilson acknowledged that the MHSA's tiebreaker rule raised questions, but that it was decided by the book.

"In this case there was a four-way tie, and you're trying to break it for one slot (for the state tournament)," Wilson said. "The tiebreaking procedure was approved by the MHSA, and not everybody knows that from the outside looking in.

"There were questions and concerns with the system, and so it's something that will be looked at prior to next season. Ultimately it comes down to the divisions themselves. Baseball is unique right now because it's a new sport, and the MHSA has been a little bit more involved with the overall running of baseball. But as we proceed each year, that portion of it needs to start being shifted towards the schools themselves, just like we run all of our sports.

"In saying that, one division could definitely come up with a different tiebreaking procedure than the other three, or whatever it may be. As we keep moving forward, we need the schools to start to take on baseball the same way they do with their other sports programs."

With the state tournament being held at Ogren Park — home of the Missoula Paddleheads of the independent Pioneer League — players will decide the championship at what amounts to a professional-level ballpark.

The bracket will again resemble that of a state basketball tournament. Thursday's first-round winners will advance to the semifinals on Friday, with the first game starting at 4 and the second game beginning at 6:30.

Semifinal winners will move on to the championship Saturday at 6:30, which is different than last year at Copper Mountain Park in Butte where the first pitch of the title game was thrown at 1 p.m.

"It'll be a great experience for the players," Wilson said. "It's a great facility and something they take great pride in; they'll have the field in great shape. The fans will enjoy it. It will be an overall great experience."