BILLINGS — It's been a year of change and growth for high school sports in Montana.
This winter saw the implementation and smooth rollout of the new 35-second shot clock rule in boys and girls basketball, as well as the continued advancement of girls wrestling. And with 21 schools committed to playing baseball in its inaugural year as a sanctioned sport, that growth will only continue this spring.
Scott Wilson, baseball liaison and an associate director at the Montana High School Association, told MTN Sports that the first season of baseball will have its moments of trial and error but that a foundation for the sport is being set in the Treasure State. A steep launch angle, if you will.
"We were hoping to have a few more (teams), but numbers-wise it worked out pretty well," Wilson said. "We're very west-heavy with the number of teams, but we added baseball last January and the schools had to go to their boards and make sure they had the funding and facilities — lots of little pieces. So I'm happy with the numbers. I've heard from several of the schools and it sounds like a lot of our programs are going to be able to field varsity and JV teams, so that's exciting."
"I think the No. 1 thing is I hope that everybody has a great experience," Wilson said. "If we get that part of it then I think you'll see more and more kids look to participate in their schools and we'll see those numbers grow and have more communities add baseball so we can have as many kids playing and schools participating as possible."
According to Wilson, the 21 teams and four divisions for the 2023 season are as follows:
Practices began last week, and Wilson said some teams are scheduled to play games as early as Friday, although some have had to adjust due to weather considerations typical of spring sports in Montana. Within each division, Wilson said teams are required to play each other in two conference games.
Games will last seven innings, and teams can play up to 22 contests, though Wilson said schools are more likely to play between 16-18.
Additionally, the MHSA has implemented a handful of pitch-count rules. In particular, varsity pitchers can't throw more than 110 pitches in a game or a day and may not throw more than 100 pitches over two consecutive days, and varsity pitchers can't throw three consecutive days regardless of pitch count. The pitch count rules will change for the postseason. To see the MHSA's full pitch-count document, click here.
As far as the postseason is concerned, this first year will feature an all-class state tournament made up of eight teams, two from each conference. It will be a double-elimination tournament, and is scheduled for May 18-20 at Copper Mountain Park in Butte. To see the bracket template, click here.
With most teams residing in the western part of the state, Wilson said scheduling was a collaborative effort.
"We met in January, all 22 schools, and put the schedules together," Wilson said. "We have AA, Butte and Belgrade, all the way down to Class C, which is Lone Peak. Usually the conferences go to their classification meetings to do their scheduling, but we called a statewide meeting in January and allowed them to schedule."
The hundreds of miles that exist between some schools, particularly in the Eastern division, called for some creativity.
"(Sidney's) scheduling is unique for sure," Wilson said. "They are going to play some games in Sidney and then travel to other locations as well. But they are also going to play some of those teams in their conference in Columbus.
"There are schools that are going to go out there to play Sidney, and while they're out there they're working on picking up a North Dakota school. Sidney is the outlier and obviously the travel is significant from those towns that are in that Eastern conference, but we did our best."
Noticeably absent from participation this season is the majority of Class AA schools and those from Montana's more urban communities. But Wilson said it's his hope and expectation that more schools will add baseball going forward.
"I think that will be the effect we will see. There are a lot of schools that have looked at passing baseball but have chosen to not start even next year but maybe the following school year, give it a couple years to have the funding and see what it will look like," he said. "Obviously one of the big things for the schools is facilities. That's probably the biggest things schools are dealing with — making sure that before they jump on board that they have agreements to use other facilities for games and practices.
"The thing that's probably most exciting for me is that we're going to build this how we want to do it in Montana, starting this year. There will be some things that we probably change or look to do different in the future, but right now we're happy with where we're at and we're hoping everybody has an enjoyable first year with it and we can build on it going forward."