MISSOULA — After a challenging start to the 2021 American Legion baseball season, the Missoula Mavericks have been on a tear in the second half of the season.
Despite a slow start, the Mavericks have gone 35-9 in their last 44 games and have put themselves in prime position for next week’s state tournament in Great Falls, which begins on July 28 and runs through Aug. 1. Currently, Missoula sits at 42-28 overall and 15-7 in conference play to sit at No. 2 overall in Class AA Legion ball.
Injuries -- especially to the team's starting pitchers -- and finding roles hindered the Mavs early with the 2021 team, but once the team settled into each of their roles, things began to click.
That includes captain Dayton Bay, who made the key switch from second base to shortstop, with manager Brent Hathaway praising Bay for making the seamless transition to boost the Mavs and become one of the team's best defenders.
"I just go out and do what’s best for the team. It’s been fun," Bay said. "It’s been new for me, different angle on the field so getting the ball there, it comes in quick, and there’s a lot of them that come to you so just make every play and go hard and then coach is happy."
The team's bats also came alive, with six players batting over .300, including Charlie Kirgan who leads the team with 11 home runs, nine triples and 72 RBIs while batting .341. Skye Palmer leads the team with a .392 batting average and has the most doubles on the team with 21 and is second in RBIs with 63. Bridger Johnson has also batted a sharp .380 and has driven in 46 runs.
"(It's) such a tight team this year and we really just enjoy being around each other and I think we knew kind of coming in what we were capable of," Kirgan said. "So when we just hit that big skid everybody was obviously down in the dumps but I think we kind of knew what we had to do to get back into it and it worked. Just good to get things turned back around honestly."
The Mavs also found some rhythm with their pitching after injuries halted a pair of their aces early on.
Players like Adam Jones (7-3, 78 innings pitched, 4.32 ERA, 85 K's) and captain Zach Hangas (9-5, 94 2/3 innings pitched, 4.73 ERA, 75 K's) lead the team in strikeouts and have been workhorses during this stretch of success with the most innings pitched. Eamon Higgins (5-4, 76 2/3 innings pitched, 4.51 ERA, 51 K's) has also been a key pitching component for Missoula.
Eventually the Mavs did return ace Alex Certel, who will pitch in college at St. Olaf, who added a big boost to the rotation again. Certel is 8-1 on the year with 45 2/3 innings pitched with a 2.19 ERA and 36 strikeouts. Fellow ace Nolan McCaffery has also made his way back into play of late after dealing with injury as well.
Hangas, who will play college baseball at Walla Walla Community College in the fall, graduated from Missoula Sentinel High School and was a part of three state championship teams his senior year. Hangas competed for Sentinel's golf and football teams that both snapped droughts and won Class AA titles in the fall while also winning one with the Missoula Bruins boys hockey team in the winter.
So to have that winning experience under his belt went a long way for the team captain -- and others who played for Sentinel's football team -- as the Mavs turned their season around.
"Being able to win championships is huge because then when you come to a team that hasn’t won championships with kids (who haven't) you can kind of show them how it’s done and the process that it takes and the hard work that you actually have to do to be successful and end the season with that last win," Hangas said.
The Mavs wrap up conference play with a doubleheader at Helena on Friday. The Senators currently sit in third and just one game behind the Mavs in conference play. Then, Missoula will host Helena next Monday for one game for the final game of the season, a non-conference game that will serve as senior night for the Mavs.
With wins on Friday, the Mavs could lock up the No. 2 seed heading into state, a mark that seemed like a long shot earlier in the summer.
"Yeah we were kind of down for a while but (Hathaway) just said keep working, keep working, it's going to click, it's going to click and finally it did so that was huge for us to see happen," Bay said.