A year ago, the American Legion baseball season was anything but normal.
But in 2021, after Montana was one of six states to play a full season, baseball is starting on time and the Helena Senators will open this weekend with a pair of non-conference doubleheaders against the Missoula Mavericks and Bozeman Bucks. The first pitch will go out both days at 1 p.m.
"Things have been going really well," Senators head coach Jon Burnett said. "It's been nice to start on time. We didn't have that hanging over our heads like last year."
Missoula is a conference rival and Bozeman, that's the team that ended the Senators season in the Legion AA state title game.
So the opponents will be familiar as the Senators open the season Saturday at Kindrick Legion Field and many of the players will be too, although some won't be available right away.
Helena will have three "super seniors" returning and two of them, Cy Miller and all-state outfielder Ethan Keintz, will return once their college seasons are over. Caden Sell, the other, is currently with the team.
Miller who was 6-1 in 13 starts last season, led Helena in innings pitched (61.2), while Keintz (52.2) was second.
"Pitching we won't have quite as much depth early in the season as I would like," Burnett said. "But that will give some others a chance to go out there and show us what they can do."
As far as the start against Missoula, Eamon Burke will get the ball first after posting a 4-1 record a year ago in 34 innings pitched. Gavin Thennis, Tyler Tenney and Victor Scott are among others who will see time on the mound.
While the Senators will have to make do without two of their better arms to start the season, the defense will have a key role to play.
Tenney will be the full-time shortstop when he's not on the mound and Sell will spend most of his time over at first base. Trysten Mooney will also be back at catcher, along with Thennis. Forrest Suero will also return as the everyday third baseman.
Even without without guys like Hunter Lindgren and Chase Nielson from last year's team, the defense should be solid. The offense should be too as eight batters with an on-base percentage of at least .400 will be returning.
Last season, the Senators had a team on-base percentage of .423 which led to an average of 7.1 runs per game and opposing pitchers will once again have to work to get Helena batters out.
Matt Burton, who will play left field regularly, will be the Senators leadoff hitter once again after excelling in the role a year ago batting .331 and getting on-base at a .466 clip. He was also second on the team in runs scored (56), as well as the team leader in walks drawn (30) and stolen bases (11).
Defensively, the Senators limited opponents to 4.1 runs per game and once the roster is complete with Keintz and Miller to fill out the rotation, as well as the defense, Helena should be a contender once again after posting a 38-17 mark a year ago and finishing as the State AA runner-up to Bozeman.
Others who will contribute this season for the Senators include Quinn Belcher, Hunter Bratcher, Cade Coate, Michael Hurlbert, Eric Cockhill, Will Brent, Luke Dowdy, Judson Seliskar and Walker Bennett.
The Senators will play their first six games in Helena including doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday against Missoula and Bozeman, respectively. Games are set to start at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. both days.
"They don't have as many guys back as us," Burnett said of Bozeman and Sunday's rematch. "But the guys they do have back can all hit and can pitch. They are going to be a tough team. Missoula is always a solid team too, so it should be a fun weekend."