GREAT FALLS — Between a COVID-altered schedule and low participation, American Legion Baseball had faced some challenges in Great Falls last year. But what a difference one year makes.
Last year’s Class AA Chargers were the only Legion team in town. But in the fall, the program officially merged with the Electric City Baseball Academy, cementing a cohesive pipeline for younger players to move to Legion. Prior to the merger, the ECBA sponsored club teams for younger age groups.
The result? Fifty players have signed up to play Legion ball this year, enough for Great Falls to have AA, A and B squads.
"(The ECBA has) done a lot for our program. And you can kind of just see with us getting 50 kids out for this year," Chargers head coach Tony Forster said. "That's huge for us, so we're excited about it."
Having more guys fighting for spots always makes everyone better, and the Chargers will welcome the pitching depth. But there's a silver lining to the low numbers in recent years: The leaders on this team already have a couple years of experience at the AA level. They intend to lean on that.
"Definitely having a bigger bullpen helps, and we're looking to use it," pitcher Cameron McNamee said. "We've got everybody coming back except for one guy and nobody's getting worse, so that's where we're excited."
In 2020, Great Falls (and every Legion team in the state) dealt with schedule uncertainty due to COVID-19. But now the Chargers can come to practice each day knowing they’re actually going to have a relatively full regular season ahead.
"Last year when we were looking at it, we weren't too optimistic but we just cherished every day that we were out here," McNamee said. "And this season, our expectations have changed because we know we're going to have a season, so we're looking forward to the rest of the summer for sure."
Excluding mid-season tournaments, Great Falls currently has more than 50 regular-season games scheduled, although contests against Canadian teams like Lethbridge and the Vauxhall Baseball Academy are subject to change depending on the status of the border.
Despite challenges, Great Falls still won a game at state, defeating the Missoula Mavericks 4-1 in loser-out action. Combining the numbers and the experience coming back, the next goal is obvious.
"Winning the tournament. I mean, that it's just that simple," Forster said. "These guys, they've worked hard. They've been part of this program for three, four years now. And they put the time in and that's our No. 1 goal this year, is to win the state tournament."
The Chargers' Navy and Gold scrimmage is scheduled for April 3.