MISSOULA - Frenchtown athletic director Eli Field sent out a text on Saturday morning that summed up what’s been a unique two weeks ahead of Montana’s first-ever high school baseball season:
“They are actually out scrimmaging in the parking lot right now.”
He was responding to a reporter's question regarding Broncs coach Brad Waln as his team prepares to open its inaugural season on Tuesday afternoon at Hamilton.
The season was scheduled to begin this past week, but games were canceled due to inclement weather. Snow-covered fields have kept Frenchtown practicing strictly on concrete.
“They set up a full diamond in our far parking lot,” Field said. “That’s kind of been their field … we have a field we want to get on … by the elementary school, but that’s still in 4-6 inches of snow.”
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Corvallis had a game called off. Hamilton had a game postponed and so did Florence.
Mother Nature hasn’t spared anyone.
“We have a five-man staff between our varsity and JV teams,” Florence coach Pat Duchien said. “And all of us have been taking turns getting snow off our field … hopefully we can dry it out before our games Saturday, if it doesn’t snow again.”
Unlike the Broncs, who have at least breathed fresh air, the Falcons have yet to get outdoors. Their practices have only been in the gym.
That opens up a whole different can of worms. Area baseball programs have to split their indoor facilities with softball and track and field, which are also stuck inside.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of challenges. There’s wrinkles both major and minor that need to be ironed out – like acquiring equipment and on-campus diamonds, not to mention the intricacies of the game itself.
The first season, and then likely a few after that, will serve as a test run intended to lead to a learning curve.
“We’re not trying to do this all in one year,” Field said. “Softball in Montana has been established now for, I think we’re pushing 40 years, and it’s taken 40 years to get that built up to the level we have around the state and it’ll take time for baseball, too.
“If I was going to give one word, I’m apprehensively anxious, which I now recognize is two. We just don’t know, how long are games going to take? What’s the pitching going to look like? What’s the level of play going to be? But in the end, when that many kids have interest, I’m excited for them to get an opportunity to play that game.”
During the fall, Waln had spoken to 45 kids about the possibility of joining the team. Florence had 27 athletes come out.
That’s why the western parts of Montana were more open to adopting the sanctioned sport for the 2023 season. Schools’ readiness aside, the kids were ready to compete.
“I know just right here locally in the Bitterroot, it was kind of an easy decision,” Duchien said. “The pitch started in Stevensville. They did a pretty good job of getting that started. Baseball has been big in this valley.”
Only two teams east of Bozeman, Sidney/Fairview and Columbus, have taken on the new endeavor. Belgrade and Butte are the only AA schools to accept it. Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls and Missoula are all waiting until at least 2024 to get their feet wet.
That just adds to the excitement of these teams pioneering the state’s baseball movement as opening day fast approaches.
Until this point, the only hardball in Montana for older kids was American Legion and Babe Ruth. Now, athletes will represent their schools on yet another stage.
“It’s exciting,” Duchien said. “I like that it's school ball because now we can place the academics (above the sport), which is always our number one (priority) and a huge expectation. We don’t waiver on that and then being the right kids in the community. You can’t go be a screw off in the community and then expect to be representing our school.”
“You’re actually representing something with your last name now.”
The first-ever high school game in the Bitterroot Valley will take place at Hamilton at 3 p.m. Tuesday when Frenchtown visits.
Lucas Semb is the Griz football beat writer for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @Lucas_Semb or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.