BELGRADE — The Belgrade Bandits had a pretty good year last year, making it to the Class A Montana Legion Baseball state tournament. They may not have won the championship, but they return quite a few seniors who are ready to bring the team back to the tournament for a shot at the state title.
“Last year was so funky, everything just felt out of line with starting way later," Bandits senior pitcher Coby Richards said. "It feels real good to get out here right after spring break.”
The Bandits return many key contributors, including quite a few starters who are now seniors.
“It’s amazing to have this class we had back last year," said starting shortstop Lane Neill. "It’s the same team, just older with more experience. We all get along super well.”
Richards is the team’s ace, a role he’s ready for.
“I’m excited for it, because I’ve been waiting the last five years to be the ace. It just feels good to be here now," he said.
Head coach Johnny Graham likes what he's seen from the young hurler so far.
“He’s looked dynamite in the bullpens, dynamite against our own hitters," Graham said. "Command is settling in. He’s got some movement on the ball, he’s got a late jump on the ball and he’s looked good."
One senior that is missing is slugging third baseman and pitcher Mason Jacobsen, who is wrapping up his school year in Idaho before he returns home for the summer. Graham hopes to have him back by June.
“It’ll be a nice boost (when Jacobsen returns) and really, when he’s gone, it’s going to force the issue to develop depth, which is going to be really good,” the head coach said.
Fans watching Bandits games will notice they play a lot of small ball -- bunting, hit-and-runs, stealing. It’s become their identity. It's eerily reminiscent of the Kansas City Royals (Graham's favorite team) in the 1970s and 1980s, or even more recently as the "piranhas" of the Minnesota Twins in the mid-2000s.
“We put the game in motion and that’s something we’ve always done and I think it’s a fun style for these guys to play in," Graham said. "I think it’s difficult to defend -- for high school athletes to defend. Really speeds the game up and that’s kind of the whole point of it.”
After a few weeks of practice, Graham is ready to see what his team has against other competition.
“We scrimmage and all that, but it’s different. The pressure is different, everything is different," he said. "It’ll be a good chance to see us in kind of a different setting, under different circumstances and see exactly what we have this early in the year.”
The Bandits kick off their season this Saturday at home in a doubleheader against Lewistown.