BUTTE — Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles faced by players and coaches during Montana's inaugural high school baseball season wasn't just opposing pitchers but that pesky curmudgeon Old Man Winter.
An unseasonably prolonged winter and rash of snowstorms that extended into May made squeezing in games as challenging as connecting on a slider.
Still, the eight teams that will descend on 3 Legends Stadium on Thursday for the opening round of the first-ever state baseball tournament managed to pile up enough wins to secure berths to a tournament that will largely be a showcase of western Montana programs.
Belgrade, the No. 1 seed out of the East division, is the only team to hail from the eastern side of the Continental Divide, not terribly surprising considering the only other teams from eastern Montana in this first season were Columbus, Lone Peak and Sidney.
Here's an overview of Thursday's four opening-round games:
1SW Florence-Carlton vs. 2E Butte, 9:30 a.m.
Thursday's first game will feature an upstart Falcons program facing a Bulldogs team filled with players that have plenty of experience bringing home baseball hardware.
Over 10 Butte players were part of the Butte Miners' 2022 team that surged to American Legion district, state and regional titles last year under head coach Jim LeProwse, who is also head coach of the Bulldogs.
The Falcons claimed the southwest division with a 9-1 conference record and an overall mark of 15-4.
Host Butte went 8-2 in the East division and 11-2 overall. Both of the Bulldogs' losses came to Belgrade.
Some of the top hitters in the state are on Butte's roster, with freshman Cayde Stajcar having 24 RBIs so far this season, Zach Tierney with 18 and Sean Ossello and Anthony Knott with 14 apiece. Stajcar has also hit two home runs.
2NW Eureka vs. 1W Polson, noon
The Lions are one of two teams in the field to enter the tournament without a winning record. Eureka finished the regular season at 8-8 overall and 5-3 in the northwest.
A.J. Truman has been the Lions' top offensive threat with 18 RBIs and a .417 batting average. Eureka also has one of the top pitchers in the state in Sam Hall who has registered an ERA of .93.
Though the West division saw the fewest conference games played out of all four divisions, the Pirates still emerged with a perfect 6-0 conference record and overall record of 16-3.
1NW Whitefish vs. 2W Frenchtown, 2:30 p.m.
Whitefish also enters the tournament with a perfect conference record at 8-0 and 13-2 overall during the regular season, with one of those losses a 10-2 defeat to Butte.
Trying to win three consecutive games at state will test all teams' bullpens, but Whitefish's depth is bolstered by Washington State commit Ty Schwaiger.
Frenchtown went 4-2 in the West and 9-2 overall.
2SW Hamilton vs. 1E Belgrade, 5 p.m.
The Panthers head into state as the only team with just one loss on its record, as Belgrade fell to Sidney on the road during the final stretch of the regular season.
At the core of Belgrade's success has been the pitcher-catcher tandem of Collin Delph and Diego Casas. The Panthers dealt Butte both of its losses in the regular season, including the Bulldogs' lone loss at home.
Hamilton finished the regular season with at 7-3 in the southwest and at 11-4 overall.
High school baseball
2023 state tournament
at Butte Copper Mountain Park
Game 1: Florence-Carlton (15-4) vs. Butte (11-2), 9:30 a.m.
Game 2: Eureka (8-8) vs. Polson (16-3), 12 p.m.
Game 3: Whitefish (13-2) vs. Frenchtown (9-10), 2:30 p.m.
Game 4: Hamilton (11-4) vs. Belgrade (14-1), 5 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 9:30 a.m., loser out
Game 6: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 9:30 a.m., semifinal
Game 7: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 12 p.m., loser out
Game 8: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 12 p.m., semifinal
Game 9: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 2:30 p.m., loser out
Game 10: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 loser, 5 p.m., loser out
Game 11: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 10 a.m., third place
Game 12: Game 6 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 1 p.m., championship