Recapping near-lost baseball season
By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF
BOZEMAN – In a season that almost never was, the Bozeman Bucks class AA American Legion baseball team seized the opportunity, finishing the regular season with an impressive 45-12 record and clinching the No. 1 seed ahead of the state tournament.
After reaching the pinnacle as champions of the Department of Montana American Legion Baseball class AA state tournament a season ago, the Bucks are aiming at back-to-back titles. They locked in the No. 1 seed six games before their conference schedule ended, finishing conference play with a record of 21-3 and outscoring opponents by a combined 92 runs.
“Our goal is to go play at a really high level and compete as hard as we can and hopefully … come out on top,” said Bucks head coach Garrett Schultz.
Having won last season’s state tournament in Billings as the No. 2 seed, described by Schultz as, “an incredible postseason run,” Bozeman and the other six teams will return to Billings once again to compete for the state tournament after a Helena Senators proposal to host the tournament was rejected by local health officials on July 31. While the rejection was a bump in the road, it was not the toughest challenge that the league faced this season.
When COVID-19 began to quickly spread throughout the country, the national governing body of American Legion Baseball made the decision to cancel the season in early May as a safety precaution. After the season seemed lost, Ron Edwards, general chairman of Montana and Alberta American Legion Baseball received unanimous permission on May 17 from the executive committee of the Department of Montana American Legion Baseball to progress with the season—albeit without the sponsorship of the national governing body.
A disclosure statement on the MAALB website reads: “This shutdown of all sponsorship and all involvement in baseball for the 2020 season means that those baseball teams that wish to continue playing 2020 season baseball shall be participating in a sporting event not sponsored, nor endorsed in any manner, by The American Legion National Organization, but sponsored and endorsed solely by the group the team is named.”
National sponsorship aside, Montana teams were eager to get back on the diamond. “Everybody wanted to try to play,” Edwards said. “There wasn’t one person that did not want to at least try.”
Functioning as independent ball clubs, MAALB teams kicked off the season later than usual in June due to COVID-19 delays and had to continue without participation by Canadian teams because of the border shutdown.
“I think it’s been really good in the respect that it reminds us a little bit about what normal looks like as far as our summer goes,” Edwards said. “You can get wrapped up in all this COVID stuff and let it dominate every aspect of your life and so we tried not to do that with our baseball program. I think by and large that the parents of all these players have been extremely happy with the fact that the kids are able to play this year.”
The Department of Montana American Legion Baseball was one of a handful of states to host any form of baseball following the national governing bodies cancelling the season. Edwards said that teams composed their own practice and game protocols that were approved by each team’s local health department. He added that there was only one COVID-19 conflict throughout more than 20 teams comprising the two levels of MAALB competition, AA and A.
“I think our kids felt really fortunate to get a season. I don’t think they took it for granted,” Schultz said. “They put their heart into it and they spent a lot of time at the ball field this summer together. I think our program got better this year. We handled adversity well.”
The MAALB AA state tournament begins Aug. 5 and the champion will be crowned Aug. 9. The two-time state champion Bucks—winners in 2007 as well—are vying for their third state title. The team won their first six conference matchups and following their first defeat went on to win the next 13 games in a row.
The Bucks are led offensively by Sage McMinn with a .500 batting average and 13 home runs over the course of the 57-game season, and Alton Gyselman, who knocked in 66 runs while batting .469. On the rubber, Bozeman turns to McMinn, Hunter Williams and Brady Higgs. Williams posted a flawless 9-0 record and finished with a 2.11 earned run average in 14 appearances. McMinn ended with a record of 7-2 and a 2.92 earned run average, while Higgs went 6-3 in 15 outings.
“We haven’t won the state tournament yet by any means,” Schultz said. “You’ve got to show up to that and play really well and go win five games.”