BILLINGS - It's hard to choose just one storyline for this year's Boulder/Arrowhead Little League Baseball All-Star Team. Good thing we don't have to.
Manager Jeff Ballard guides this group into next week's Northwest Regional Tournament in San Bernardino, California, and knows a thing or two about playing at Al Houghton Stadium.
"I'm really excited to see the stadium again," Ballard told MTN Sports during a recent practice. "Hadn't changed much, I don't think, from when I was there."
That was about four decades ago when Ballard was a lefty ace pitcher for the Billings All-Stars representing as Montana's state champs. His dad Bill was the manager then. Fast-forward to 2021 as Ballard now coaches his son Kyren on this trip.
"Yeah, it's like a tradition, almost," Kyren said.
"So, that's the other part that's really special for me, is that my son's playing," Jeff said. "I get to coach him and do the same thing my father did with me and get to go to San Bernardino."
Jeff's team didn't make it out of that regional, but odds are suddenly doubled for this year's team. Due to COVID-19, no foreign countries will be invited to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, this summer.
So, if ever there was a year when the stars line up, this could be it.
"It'd be this year," Kyren said. "Montana gets a first-round bye and they're taking two teams from the (North)West Regional to go to the Little League World Series. So, if we make it to the championship, we'd go."
Here's how it works. Montana is one of six teams battling for two spots. Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Wyoming and Idaho round out the field. After their opening round bye, Boulder/Arrowhead will play on Monday against Sunday's winner between Wyoming and Idaho. It's a double-elimination tournament, so even should B/A stumble, Montana can fight back to the championship in which both teams would qualify for a pass to Williamsport.
The only Little League Majors 11-12 baseball team Montana has sent to the World Series was exactly 10 years ago this summer when the Big Sky All-Stars from Billings reached the U.S. Championship game.
One all-star who won't actually get to take the diamond is second baseman Grady Martin, stuck with a fractured wrist. Martin played in Boulder/Arrowhead's first six all-star games, but a backyard incident did him in.
"We were playing whiffle ball and my brother hit a ball over my backyard fence," Grady recalled. "I was climbing over it and one of my friends pushed me over, and I just tumbled forward and landed right on my wrist. We found out it was broken, so..."
Talk about unlucky. That means Grady, now sporting a team-colored blue and red cast on his left wrist, is on the shelf for regionals. But he will travel and, if Boulder/Arrowhead advances, "I might be able to play Williamsport, but I probably won't because we called up a player and he's doing really good."
Sounds like life in the Big Leagues.
Boulder/Arrowhead recently won Montana's state championship with a two-game sweep over Mount Jumbo West Side in Missoula, 5-0 and 13-3 in four innings.
Players say they feel good about carrying that energy into this tournament.
"We're strong hitting-wise and everyone can pitch on our team," said Kyren Ballard. "So, we have a lot of good arms on our team."
One of those belongs to Zach McDonald, who's also a heavy hitting third baseman.
"It's going to be hot and really fun because I think all the teams are going to be good," McDonald said. "It's going to be hard to beat people."
B/A's first game can be seen on ESPN+ Monday at 5 p.m. MDT. A win means all of Boulder/Arrowheads's remaining games would be televised live on ESPN starting Thursday at 7 p.m. MDT.
"Everybody will be a little nervous, since here in Montana there's no big ESPN (network) or anything," Grady said.
"I'm a little nervous, but I'm happy, too," added Zach. "It's going to be cool to be on TV."
"I'm excited," Kyren said. "I hope we can move on, go to the Little League World Series and hopefully win some games there."