Longtime Class AA Missoula Mavericks manager Brent Hathaway has been pleasantly surprised with the positive results put forward by his ballclub during the American Legion baseball regular season.
A Mavs team that saw youth forced into high-profile roles after seven eligible athletes chose not to return this season managed to claim a share of Western Division crown and post a very respectable 44-25 record.
But on the eve of their opener at the Montana/Alberta State AA tournament Wednesday at noon against the Billings Scarlets in Whitefish, Hathaway felt his team was capable of more.
“With all the new faces, kids who were pushed into significant roles that might be there a little bit early, they’re still co-conference champions, they won a big Scott Klaudt tournament and put up 44 wins,” said Hathaway. “I guess they exceeded my expectations. But do I think we’ve managed to get as far as we’re capable of? No, I really don’t. I think they have more in them. Hopefully that will surface this weekend in Whitefish.”
The Mavs will have to be at their best should they hold hopes of bringing home Hathaway’s sixth state-championship trophy and first since 2010 in the team’s 20th consecutive trip to state.
Missoula takes the second seed from the West to state after finishing tied with the Medicine Hat Moose Monarchs at 19-6 in league. Medicine Hat earned the top seed after beating the Mavs four out of five games in head-to-head competition.
Leading the way on offense for the Mavs has been their best all-around athlete, center fielder/first baseman/relief pitcher Riley King. Not only does King sport the best batting average of a Missoula regular at .414, he’s clubbed 14 doubles, 11 triples and four home runs. In addition, King has swiped a team-record 53 bases in 59 attempts this season.
Outfielder/pitcher Tanner Rheinschmidt is hitting a healthy .345 and first baseman/outfielder Shane Olson is batting .338 with a team-high 21 doubles and 61 RBIs.
Of the first-year AA Mavericks to have contributed to the team’s success, none has shined brighter than catcher Slade Heggen. While putting up a .313 average with 11 doubles, four triples and a pair of home runs, Heggen has brought stability behind the plate and gunned down 30 of 58 potential base stealers entering Monday’s 6-4 defeat at the hands of the Helena Senators.
“The guys will get up and be excited about playing at state and emotionally into it,” Hathaway said. “As far as how they perform, you’re just going to have to wait and see. We haven’t been playing our best baseball as of late and you’d like to be at that point when you’re rolling into the state tournament. But those things have a way of turning around when all the marbles are on the table.”
The Maverick pitching staff is led by starter Tres Cunningham, who is 9-4 in a team-high 86 1-3 innings pitched with a 3.34 ERA and a team-best 54 strikeouts. Matt McHugh (8-3), Nathan Jewett (6-3) and Josh Meader (5-2) also highlight the starting staff.
King has appeared in 16 games on the mound and thrown just 22 innings, but the left-handed fireballer is tops among Missoula relievers with four saves and is second on the Mavs with 36 strikeouts.
Hathaway is optimistic as he knows that once the state tournament starts, anything can happen.
“Of course there’s the luck factor,” he said. “You see it every year – a team advances because of a fortunate bounce or a call that goes their way. We’re not going to power through the state tournament with the offense that we have like we’ve had the last couple of years. It’s exciting, but on the other hand, a little bit nerve wracking.”
Live scoring for all tournament games running through Sunday’s championship round can be found by visiting mtabbaseball.org.