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Belgrade Bandits head to regionals after completing decades-long title quest

Posted at 3:22 PM, Aug 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-01 21:16:36-04

BELGRADE — Belgrade is widely referred to as a baseball town. The community revolves around the sport and its team, the Belgrade Bandits.

The Bandits lived up to their nickname and became state champions for the first time in program history on Sunday after beating the Laurel Dodgers 4-2.

“We lost a tough game last year at state, and immediately us, all the super seniors, came together, and we knew the team this year was going to be extra special," Bandits outfielder and state tournament batting champion Aidan Kulbeck said. "And we all put a pact that we were coming back and going to get it done.”

Kulbeck is one of four super seniors on this year's Bandits roster. Along with the three other true seniors from Belgrade, the team is comprised of some of the best talent and experience they've ever had.

The postseason journey for the team started at the district tournament in Three Forks less than two weeks ago. A highlight moment came when they clinched their bid to state in extra innings against the Gallatin Valley Outlaws in the third-place game.

Second place wasn’t good enough for the Bandits, so they turned around and beat Butte in the championship game to lock up the No. 1 seed from the Southern A going into state.

And once they arrived in Laurel, the Bandits carried the momentum they built from the previous Sunday right into their first game, a 7-3 win against the Mission Valley Mariners that included a Kulbeck grand slam.

It should be noted, the Mariners were made up of many players from the first-ever high school state championship team in Polson.

“We put in the work early," Kulbeck explained. "We hit the field, and we just did what we did, and that was just get base hits, and do what we usually do, and that’s win. I mean, we love it here, and we put in the work.”

It is just the second year since Ryan Johnerson, their manager, has taken over. He was more excited for his players to have the moment of being state champions than anything else.

“The emotions for me is I’m just happy for the kids," Johnerson said. "Last year we won those first two, and then it seemed like it ended so quickly. So this year, and every year, the goal is to be state champions.”

After their win against Polson, the next night they matched up against the host team, Laurel. It was a game that lasted over three and a half hours due to weather delays, and Belgrade would walk off late into the night to win it.

Two games later, they rematched the Dodgers, who wanted revenge for that walk off. But this time the stakes were much higher — it was for a championship.

“Day 4 and 5 are brutal," Bandits pitcher and state tournament MVP Collin Delph said. "Long days, we had two games back to back, rain delays, and just grinders all the way through the tournament. Really just focusing on our goal and not letting up.”

Belgrade is a team that never quits. It was down in championship game 2-0 until the bottom of the fifth when its offense took over.

Josh Arrants had the game-tying single that sent two runners in. Then, Gavin Waters would cross home from a successful squeeze play. Brayton Van Dyken would seal the 4-2 win with the final run of the game.

The year’s Bandits team is one that will be remembered for years to come, beyond etching their name into history for winning their first-ever state championship — their level of skill, drive and togetherness is what sets them apart.

“It’s huge it’s still the first in program history, so it’s crazy to be apart of," Delph said. "Senior year, last year for all of us, crazy, great group of guys, love all of them. It’s just fun to make history.”

Belgrade was the third team in a row from the South district to win state and will next represent Montana — along with the host Havre Northstars — at the Class A Northwest Regional tournament this week. The Bandits will play Idaho Falls at 4 p.m. on Friday in the first round of the tournament.

To help support their first-ever trip to Regionals, head to this link.