EAST HELENA — Though Major League Baseball teams have been ‘battling’ it out since late February during spring training, the longstanding tradition breached Montana for the first time on Monday as high school baseball teams were able to hold their first-ever sanctioned practices and tryouts.
East Helena was a far cry from the balmy 73 degrees it was in Peoria, Arizona, on Monday when the Seattle Mariners took on the Chicago Cubs.
“I have some friends in eastern Montana and they were praising us and saying, ‘Well, it's so nice that you guys got nice weather,’ And I said, ‘Well, let's give it a day,’ and we found three inches of snow on the ground this morning,” said East Helena head baseball coach Ethan Hoffman on Monday afternoon.
“When you get 35 guys in an elementary school gym, chasing, you know, fly balls and ground balls, it can get a little tight. But we make — we make it work, you know? We understand Montana weather, and we know that we have to adapt to it.”
Though this is the first-ever sanctioned Montana High School Association baseball practices, it’s not the first time high schoolers have played baseball in Montana, with the American Legion program holding a rich history that dates back to the mid-1920s.
Some key differences between Legion baseball and high school baseball moving forward are monetary and time commitments.
“It's kind of hard for a lot of kids to be able to like play Legion with how like — how competitive it is. And of course, the money. So, I think it's just good that they're giving everyone a chance,” said East Helena sophomore Eli Fox, who also plays Legion baseball.
“I'm from Pennsylvania. So we had high school ball back there, but we didn't really have too much of a commitment, too expensive. So, it's good to have high school ball where everybody will be able to get to play,” said East Helena senior Colby Weaver, whose family recently moved to Montana.
The MHSA officially added baseball as a sanctioned sport in January of 2022, and since then 21 teams have made their way into the fold vying for that first-ever state baseball title. Unlike many other schools, East Helena is no stranger to starting new programs with the school starting all new sports programs during the 2019-2020 school year.
“This high school has that uncommon opportunity, like I've said, starting up programs, you know, just in the last within the last five years,” said Hoffman. “For us, we're — we're coming in the same level, as, you know, a lot of these other teams in the state. So, you know, we're, we're thinking we can compete.”
East Helena’s opening day is slated for March 17 at home against Browning and between now and then, the Vigilantes hope they can piece a cohesive team that will continue to get stronger throughout the season.
“It's really exciting to see the anticipation and the buzz of our boys out here. A lot of them have been putting in some time in the offseason, through open gyms and whatnot. But you know, we're very optimistic with the group that we have,” said Hoffman.
MTN Sports' Hays Bartruff contributed to this report