BILLINGS — Things are beginning to feel a little more normal for the Laurel Dodgers.
After missing the state tournament last year for the first time in 11 years, the Dodgers are back. Laurel won the East A District tournament over the weekend and will now turn its attention towards a state title.
The Dodgers, the Lewistown Redbirds, the Belgrade Bandits and Glacier Twins all enter the tournament as District winners. They will be joined by the Bitterroot Red Sox, who are the three-time defending state champion, as well as the Gallatin Valley Outlaws and the Tri-County Cardinals. The Miles City Mavericks are hosting the tournament and earned an automatic bid to round out the field. The tournament runs Wednesday through Sunday.
Laurel will take on Gallatin Valley at 4 p.m. for its first game of the year.
"Confidence is key. Last year we kind of didn't play real well and the other teams took it to us and it was kind of a little culture shock for us," Laurel manager Doug Studiner. "We had kind of been resting on our 'laurels' for awhile, thinking that it would be a given and we got educated that it's not and you have to work hard.
"The players worked really hard this year. We used last year as fuel. We didn't look at it as a negative, we looked at it as a positive to show how hard you have to work to get to the state tournament."
The Twins and Cardinals will open the tournament on Wednesday at 10 a.m. Lewistown and Bitterroot will play at 1 p.m., followed by Laurel-Gallatin Valley and Belgrade-Miles City at 7 p.m.
Laurel entered the district tournament as the top seed and cruised through the competition, defeating the Dawson County Blue Devils for the spot at state.
Studiner said he has 10 players on this year's squad who played a year ago. Players like team leaders Chase Feller, Deklan Harper and Braden McIlvain, have all been around for four years and saw what it was like to make it to back-to-back state title games and regional tournaments before falling early a year ago.
"It hurt them more than it hurt anybody," Studiner, who is in his fifth year as manager, said. "They used it as fuel and they've risen to the challenge."
According to Studiner, Harper, who recently committed to Miles Community College for baseball, leads the team in most batting statistics while Feller has been the team's ace.
The top two teams from this year's state tournament will advance to the regional tournament in Lewiston, Idaho, the final tournament of the year at the Class A level.
Studiner specifically pointed out the Bitterroot Red Sox as the team to watch. As three-time reigning champs, with two of those years winning the regional too, the Red Sox have the winning pedigree coming in.
"Until someone knocks them off, you have to put the Bitterroot Red Sox up there," Studiner said. "They're always tough coming out of there. They've been there the last few years and they know what it takes."
But at state, it's anyone's game.
"I think anybody can win this tournament including the host," Studiner said. "I know what we're going up against and everybody else knows what they're going up against."