BILLINGS — Though not a game of either the Eastern AA or Eastern B-C softball tournaments was played at Stewart Park Friday, the same emotions played out as if games had been.
Both tournaments — qualifiers for each classification’s state tournaments — were canceled in their entirety after an initial delay of nearly three hours. There were tears, as well as players posing for photos with tournament trophies.
Rain hit Billings late Thursday night, and on-and-off showers persisted throughout Friday morning. Though officials and grounds crew members tried to make the fields playable, there was simply too much water. And with the forecast looking worse for later in the day Friday and into Saturday, officials made the call of last resort.
They reasoned if the tournaments couldn't be played to completion, there wasn’t much sense in starting them. Better to make a decision and let teams check out of their hotels without being charged an additional day and get home.
Player safety also was an issue. A game between Cut Bank and Glasgow saw one player get an at-bat, but teams were taken off the field when rain began to fall again.
“One field was OK, maybe, but you can’t get all the games done on one field,” said Shepherd athletic director Rich Hash, who was the Eastern B-C tournament manager. “The pitchers are going to slide, the kids running the bases are going to slide … and the fields can’t take any more water. They’re maxed (out).”
Both Hash and Mark Wahl, the director of athletics and activities for Billings Public Schools, said the coaches were disappointed but understanding.
“You feel really bad for the lower seeds, because every coach believes that they can come in at the end of the year and play their best,” Wahl said. “So you feel bad for them. But outdoor divisional tournaments are tough.
“The coaches were really good, they were professional. I’m sure there’s some disappointment.”
After the announcement, some players around the softball complex were crying with the realization their season was over. Others, such as players from Huntley Project and Cut Bank, took team or individual photos with their trophies.
This was to be Class AA’s first attempt at a divisional. Previously, the classification used a best-of-3 playoff series between league teams, with the seventh seed playing at the No. 2 seed, No. 6 at No. 3 and No. 5 at No. 4, with the winners qualifying for state (the top regular-season team received a bye into state).
The coaches voted and school officials approved the divisional format for this season, only to see it rained out. Whether they’ll stick with the tournament format after this weekend’s disappointment is uncertain, though Wahl said typically when a new format is instituted officials prefer to see it play out at least two seasons before making any changes.
“(Coaches) could very well come back and say, ‘you know, we prefer a playoff,’ and we might say, ‘yeah,’ " Wahl said. “So we could go back. But it would have to come from the coaches.”
Because of the divisional tournament’s cancellation, the East’s top four teams from the regular season go to next week’s state tournament in Butte: Great Falls, Billings Skvyiew, Billings West and Billings Senior. That left Great Falls CMR, Butte and Bozeman unable to play their way in.
The top four regular-season teams from the Eastern B-C advance to their state tournament in Belgrade May 23-25: Huntley Project, Cut Bank, Conrad and Shepherd. Left out were Glasgow, Stillwater, Colstrip, Great Falls Central and Shelby. Great Falls Central defeated Shelby 21-17 on Thursday night to start the tournament.
One of the harsh lessons of outdoor sports is they are impacted by weather. And that regular-season games, and seedings, are important.
“Everything counts in the regular season,” Hash said. “You never know when you’re going to have a situation like this.”
Over in Sidney, the Eastern A tournament was called off because of the weather as well. That tournament started Thursday, with Hardin and Laurel grabbing state berths by advancing to the championship game. Miles City, Glendive, Billings Central and Sidney were in the loser-out bracket and set to play for the division’s final Class A tournament slot. Instead, Miles City gets the trip since the Cowgirls were the No. 3 seed entering the divisional.
The Class A state tournament will take place in Polson May 23-25.