FLORENCE — Never mind for just a moment that the Vauxhall Spurs captured the Montana-Alberta American Legion State A Baseball Tournament Wednesday in Florence with an 11-3 win against the hosting Bitterroot Bucs in Florence.
The Spurs, from Alberta, Canada, sporting the North A's top seed were always a favorite to walk away with the state crown. That doesn't take away from their tournament run — one capped with an impressive complete-game effort from starting pitcher Brady Howg.
But Bitterroot Bucs coach Austin Nogle summed up his team's surprise surge to the championship game when he was asked in his team's clubhouse, "Who would have thought you'd be playing in Game (14)?"
"Nobody," Nogle responded.
Nobody, that is, but the Bucs.
"Incredible. We showed up here and a lot of people thought we shouldn't be here and we sent four teams home. I couldn't be more proud of my guys," Nogle said. "They competed to the last pitch, they never gave up. I'm just super proud of my guys. They went on a helluva run."
Before Vauxhall's seven-run second inning put its title on ice; before tournament MVP John-Markus Vulcano finished the day with two hits and four RBIs and before Howg's final pitch for strike three delivered Vauxhall its third-ever Class A title and first since 2008, the Bucs beat all expectations to find themselves in the championship game.
Bitterroot overcame a 13-6 Gallatin Valley lead in the top of the sixth inning to walk off with an improbable 15-14 semifinal win in the home half of the seventh on Wednesday. Bitterroot's Kellen Bradt, pinch running for Brendan Schneiter, scored the winning run after Zack Christopherson's ground ball wasn't handled by the Outlaws' first baseman.
And the Bucs went ballistic.
"Word can't describe this, this has been the goal all year," said Jake Scully, who knocked in Colby Kohlman to tie the game 14-14 in the bottom of the seventh and took home the tournament's batting award. "Everything we've looked forward to is right here. To do this on our home field (get to the championship game), this is the greatest opportunity."
It's an opportunity that was granted to the Bucs by way of an automatic bid to the state tournament due to Bitterroot hosting in Florence. The West's No. 2 seed lost the tourney opener to Laurel, but the underdog Bucs won four straight elimination games Sunday through Wednesday's semifinal to advance to the title game against Vauxhall.
And the Bitterroot boys were up against the ropes in the semifinal against GVO, too.
In the top of the sixth inning, Jake Scully reached his pitch limit with his fifth strikeout of the game. He left the mound to don his catching gear after an emphatic fist pump, and he and the Bucs held a 6-4 lead.
"Jake was huge. He came out and battled. He faced a lot of adversity and got through it," Nogle said of Scully, who wore most of the infield dirt, grass and chalk on his white uniform. "And then to be able to go back behind the dish after, that's huge. Can't ask for more."
The Bitterroot bullpen couldn't hold the lead, though. Three pitchers combined to walk six, hit a batter and give up an RBI base hit to Hunter Johnson and a three-RBI double from Kyle Grevious that gave the Outlaws a 13-6 lead. An error from Christopherson at first extended the inning.
"These guys played their hearts out. We were down 6-3, and we came back and got a seven run lead. We kept battling and that's all we can ask for," Gallatin Valley coach Duwayne Scott said.
But the Bucs — and Christopherson — each redeemed themselves. Bitterroot scored five runs in the bottom half of the fifth inning to cut into Gallatin Valley's lead, 14-11. Johnny Lineback had the big hit in that inning for the Bucs, a two-RBI double after Scully, Kohlman and Blake Hinsdale each walked in a run.
"We told them, just because they put up runs it's not over. We had two chances left and we can swing it. We can swing it with anybody," Nogle said. "Give us six outs, anything can happen."
GVO got a run back in the top of the seventh inning on a Robert Hays RBI single, but Schneiter managed to escape a bases-loaded, no-out jam to keep the damage to just one run.
That set up Bitterroot's comeback.
Brenden Bailey led off the Bucs last chance with a base hit back up the middle. Alex Gavlak followed with a base hit to right field and Bailey tried for third base. The throw from the GVO right fielder sailed out of play allowing Bailey to score and Gavlak to advance to third.
Kohlman followed one batter later by beating out a bobbled ball in the infield, which brought Gavlak across the plate and pulled the Bucs within one, 14-13. A Schneiter base pushed Kohlman to second base and a passed ball put Kohlman on third.
Kohlman — who celebrated his 17th birthday on Wednesday with a two-run home run to give the Bucs a 2-0 lead way back in the bottom of the first inning — came home for the tying run on Scully's single one batter later.
Up stepped Christopherson, who got the redemption he was looking for from his earlier misplay. The lanky first baseman hustled down the line on an in-between grounder. This time it was GVO's corner infielder who couldn't handle the hop, sending Bradt home and Christopherson into a celebration at first base.
"Baseball is a weird game. Plays like that, it obviously makes a difference," Scully said of Christopherson getting a bit of poetic justice. "We've had some heartbreakers like that, so we know what it feels like.
"Boy, it's been nice to be on the other end of it."