BILLINGS — Consecutive years of disappointment left the Bozeman Bucks hungry to atone for past state tournament shortcomings. Now the they are on the verge of accomplishing that goal.
In what was a continuation of its offensive assault, Bozeman made short work of the Billings Royals 10-0 in the undefeated semifinal at the Montana/Alberta American Legion Class AA tourney Monday at Dehler Park, guaranteeing itself a spot in the championship round.
The second-seeded Bucks, the last undefeated team remaining, will play Missoula at 7 p.m. on Tuesday. No. 1 Missoula eliminated the seventh-seeded Billings Scarlets with a 3-0 victory earlier Monday.
No. 4 Lethbridge, meanwhile, knocked No. 6 Helena from the tournament by a 4-1 score in a loser-out game. The Elks will face the Royals Tuesday at 4.
Bozeman was the No. 1 seed in each of the previous two state tournaments, but lost in the title round on its home field in 2017 before going two-and-out last season in Kalispell.
“We’ve had a chip on our shoulder and everyone worked really hard in the offseason, and it’s starting to show on the field now,” said Bucks standout Mike Freund, who had a huge hand in Monday’s win. “We feel really good. Really good; 10-running a team on their home field is huge and that’s a lot of momentum for us.”
The last non-Billings or Missoula team to win the state title was Bozeman, but that was way back in 2007. These Bucks aim to put a stop to that drought, and they’re doing it with red-hot offense.
Against the Royals, they jumped out with four runs in the bottom of the first, added five more in the second and another in the third to build an insurmountable lead. Freund went 3 for 3 with three RBIs, while Alton Gyselman ripped two hits and drove in three runs.
Leadoff hitter Kelher Murfitt, who Bozeman coach Garrett Schultz called “the toughest kid on the field,” reached safely two more times and scored twice while inflating his tournament on-base percentage to an eye-popping .692.
The Bucks have scored 29 runs in three games.
But, Schultz cautioned, they “haven’t won anything yet. We’re not hanging our hats yet. I like the position we’re in. Mostly I like the way we’re playing the game right now.
"I feel really good about how confident our guys are and how well we’re seeing the ball. But we’ve got some tough games ahead of us for sure.”
Freund got the start on the mound for the Bucks, allowing four hits in three scoreless innings before giving way to reliever Parker McCan, who threw the final two innings of the run-rule-shortened contest.
Bryan Benjamin, coach of the defending-champion Royals, said his team lacked a certain vitality.
“It just didn’t seem like we were ready that first inning. We just didn’t have the energy and the excitement that we’d had,” he said. “We expected them to come out and hit the ball, and it just didn’t seem like we were totally ready today.
“We had a good talk after the game and hopefully we can flush this game and be ready to move on to the next one.”
The Royals/Lethbridge matchup will be a rematch of a first-round game, which Billings won on Saturday by a 3-1 score.
Missoula 3, Scarlets 0
The Scarlets and Missoula have won 25 state championships between them, but only one of the two storied programs could remain standing Monday. Zach Hangas did his part to ensure the Mavericks kept their season intact.
Hangas dealt a complete-game shutout while giving up seven hits, striking out four and walking one. He made his biggest pitches in key moments, and the Scarlets left a combined nine runners on base.
The Mavericks were beaten by the Royals on Sunday night and will be eliminated from the tournament with another loss. Still, Hangas said he felt no pressure to perform in a must-win situation.
“Not at all. I just came out looking to throw strikes and let the defense play,” he said. “Our offense will do what it does and hopefully we come out with a win, and that’s what happened.”
“I was getting ahead with that fastball, then the changeup worked and got them out in front,” he added. “They didn’t know what was coming. It worked out.”
The teams were scoreless until the bottom of the third when Missoula pushed two runs across after loading the bases with two outs. Brendon Hill scored from third on a passed ball, and then Dane Fraser stole home against Scarlets pitcher Andy Larsen by beating a tag attempt by catcher Jarron Wilcox.
The tag appeared to beat Fraser to the plate, but the umpire ruled the ball was not secured.
“I’ve seen them do that before, especially with a lefty on the mound,” Scarlets coach Adam Hust said. “And (Larsen’s) got a little bit of a slow pace. In that situation we sure didn’t expect it. But if we catch that ball he’s out. It happened to go their way.”
“I asked Dane and he was like, ‘Whoa. Didn’t expect that one,’” Hangas said. “Big second run right there.”
The Mavericks added an insurance run in the fourth on a two-out RBI single by Dayton Bay. Larsen struck out eight and walked one in six innings, but the run support was scant.
The Scarlets, who have won 14 state titles, didn’t have a typical season, but Hust said it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
“It was a lot of work. We put in a lot of time. Obviously we didn’t get the results we expected. Sometimes that’s the way it works,” Hust said.
“Our last 15 games of the season was the best baseball we played. I think if we would have made some adjustments and played that way earlier in the season we might be in a different boat right now, but it is what it is. The kids gave me all their time and all their effort, and sometimes you just come up short.”
Missoula, the winner of 11 total championships, still has a chance to add to its title collection as the tourney moves into its fourth day.
“We’ve just got to come out and hit the ball and score some runs and we’ll see where we end up at the end of the tournament,” Hangas said. “We want to be on top.”
Lethbridge 4, Helena 1
Lethbridge starter Levi Abbott pitched into the seventh inning Monday, shutting down Helena and leading the Elks forward.
Abbott struck out eight and allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings as the Elks eliminated the Senators.
Skylar Braun doubled and had two RBIs for Lethbridge. Leadoff hitter Kalem Haney went 2 for 2 with two walks, an RBI and a run scored.
Caden Sell and Grady Koenig each had two hits for Helena.