Derek Keller and Adam Olson have one more shot at an American Legion baseball state championship run.
With the Kalispell Lakers entering their conference schedule, that run begins now.
Keller and Olson, the Lakers’ 19-year-old captains, are in their final year of eligibility for American Legion baseball. Olson, a burly third baseman and pitcher, said this is the best Lakers team he’s played for, including a squad three years ago that made it to the state tournament.
Fresh off a 9-3 drubbing of the defending Class A champion Mission Valley Mariners last week, Olson said his AA Lakers are proving to be a formidable opponent in Montana baseball. But they’re not quite where they need to be, he said.
“I see a team with a lot of talent,” Olson said. “But we need to put that talent to work.”
The Lakers, (11-9 and 0-2 in the conference), face a tough, balanced Western AA conference this year, where no team appears to be the frontrunner, coach Ryan Malmin said. The Missoula Mavericks, the defending conference champs, lost eight players from last year’s team but are still contenders, Malmin said. The Glacier Twins of Whitefish, playing with a new coach, have jumped out to a solid start this year as well.
Malmin said his team’s main problem this year has been scoring runs. Their pitching has been solid and the runs have come in bunches at times, but the Lakers aren’t putting runs on the board consistently enough to be a state contender, Malmin said.
“It all depends on what we do at the plate,” Malmin said. “We’re going to have to match teams with runs.”
As of last week, the Lakers were hitting .302 as a team, but a few players have yet to find their groove, including Olson, whose average is hovering around .200. Heading into last weekend’s conference opener against Missoula, Keller was batting .385 with a team-high 11 walks and nine stolen bases.
Pitcher and shortstop Tyler Reichhoff is leading the way for the Lakers on both the mound and at the plate. Before the Missoula game, Reichhoff was batting a team-best .403 with 18 runs and 17 runs batted in, both team highs. On the mound, he’s 3-3 with a team-high 34 strikeouts. Olson has the best earned run average among starters at 2.59, good enough for a 2-1 record in four starts.
Greg Neils is 3-0 in three starts with a 4.48 ERA. Brian Sneck is 1-1 with the second-best ERA among starters on the staff at 3.79. At the plate, right fielder Pat Hergesheimer is batting .321 and is second on the team with 16 RBIs.
The Lakers lost six players from last year’s team, but the core is intact, including four starters.
“We have a nice nucleus back,” Malmin said.
With conference play just getting underway, the Lakers are looking to improve on their 8-16 conference record last year, which wasn’t good enough to get them to state. Malmin is in his third year with the Lakers. In his first year, the team finished 34-31, including 13-11 in the conference.
Out of the seven teams in Western AA, the Lakers are fighting for one of three spots in the state tournament. Usually the top four from Western AA go, but because the Great Falls Electrics are hosting this year’s state tournament, Malmin said, they qualify no matter where they place.
“Every conference game is going to count,” he said.
The Lakers renew their rivalry with the Glacier Twins at 6 p.m. on June 5 at Griffin Field, located off of Airport Road. Malmin said the Twins are fast and have solid pitching. Like the Lakers, he said, the Twins have what it takes to make it to state if they show up to play every game.
“I think they’re just like everybody else,” Malmin said. “They have a chance to vie for that spot at state.”
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