LAUREL – The Laurel Dodgers fell into a trap of their own making.
True, the other American Legion baseball teams at the Eastern A district tournament, particularly the Miles City Mavericks and Billings Cardinals, helped push the Dodgers into the abyss. But in the end, missing out on the Class A state tournament for the first time in 11 years last season meant the Dodgers had to look in the mirror.
“There was complacency, a little bit,” Laurel coach Doug Studiner said Wednesday afternoon as his team’s rally came up just short in a 9-8 loss to the AA Great Falls Chargers in the opening game of the Goldsmith Gallery Legion Against Cancer Tournament. “Over the last two years in conference we were 46-2. So you go to the district tournament and you think we can beat everybody. Well, that’s not how it works. Everybody wants to win and you have to show up every day and we didn’t.”
It was a tough lesson for a program that has won four Class A state titles since 2009 and appeared in the championship game two years ago. There’s a legacy to uphold, and the Dodgers couldn’t do it last year, even though they were the district’s top seed with a 22-2 league record.
“It was a hard pill to swallow,” said Chase Feller, who returned to the Dodgers for his final season after playing for Miles Community College in the spring. “We were kind of in awe, kind of in shock, we thought it was a no-doubter we were going to state. I think that’s the biggest thing we took from it, is we can always get beat. We kind of had the mentality that we can’t be beat, but it kind of came back and bit us in the butt.”
Studiner, who is in his fifth season with the Dodgers, said this is a bounce-back year for his club. With most of the players returning, they’re once again putting up big numbers in the win column. Wednesday’s loss dropped the Dodgers to 20-7, and they’re back to dominating league play at 9-1.
Feller, who hasn’t stopped playing baseball since last year’s Legion season started, hasn’t let fatigue get the best of him. He’s batting a team-high .425, and is 3-1 with a 1.50 ERA. Though the Chargers jumped on Carson West Wednesday, pitching has been a team strength: Laurel had a 2.84 team ERA heading into the game, with Cash Golden (4-0, 1.44) also posting a sub-2.00 ERA.
Meanwhile, six players – West, Golden, Deklan Harper, Braden McIlvain, Noah Gunther and Kanyin Moran – have all topped the 20-RBI mark.
Ironically, it was Golden, pitching for the Cardinals last season, who helped end the Dodgers’ season.
“It comes up,” McIlvain said with a smile. “But there’s no animosity or anything like that. We’re happy to have him.”
Simply put, the Dodgers hadn’t faced much adversity the past two seasons. And when they finally did last season at districts, they didn’t know how to respond, said McIlvain.
But the good news, he added, is it’s an experience from which the Dodgers have grown.
“For some of us this is the last year, this is it,” McIlvain said. “You don’t want to go down on another season like that. You want to be at your best and do your best. I think the self-reflection part of it was really important for those of us coming back. I hope that attitude from us veterans will hopefully carry over to the new players as well for their future seasons, and they can continue the Dodger legacy of making the state tournament.”