Walker Malmin woke up every day last week wishing it was game day.
His teammates on the Kalispell Lakers shared the enthusiasm.
“Everyone is excited. We’re really looking forward to the season,” Levi Brenneman, a standout pitcher and infielder for the Lakers, said.
Renewed confidence surrounds the new legion baseball season for the Flathead Valley’s teams.
The Lakers’ AA club, which brings back a core group of veteran players like Malmin and Brenneman, is reimaging itself as a speedy, athletic team that can climb the standings this summer.
The Glacier Twins, the Whitefish-based reigning Class A state champions, are coming off one of the program’s best seasons and have great aspirations yet again this year.
The same goes for the Mission Valley Mariners in Polson, where longtime head coach Jami Hanson consistently fields a contender.
“It’s going to be a fun year,” Glacier Twins skipper Bob Rupp said.
Glacier opens the season April 25 at home against the Calgary RedBirds with a doubleheader starting at 2 p.m. Another doubleheader is slated for the following day starting at 11 a.m.
No doubt, the Twins are the favorites in Western A. Rupp has all but one returning starter back and a fully loaded pitching staff of veteran hurlers, including ace Austin Robins, who can hit 80 miles per hour on the radar gun. Last season he pitched 82 innings for the Twins. There’s also Jonny Sapa, another standout right-hander who logged 97 innings, and AJ Wetsch, whose ERA dropped to 2.39 through 97.2 innings. Rounding out the staff, Jesse Walburn tossed 67 innings with an ERA of 2.95 during the state championship season.
“They’re looking really good,” Rupp said. “The older kids are a year older and a year stronger, and you can really see it.”
Vinnie Smith is the Twins top returning hitter. The Whitefish High School senior had 62 RBI last season and hit .420 with a .467 on-base percentage. Jayce Fagerland, the team’s standout shortstop, is also back after hitting .368 with 33 RBI last season. Kyler Howke is a returning standout outfielder who hit .333 with 38 RBI.
The team voted on captains for the first time this year and chose Fagerland, Walburn, Smith and Howke.
“The guys are actually doing things now that they did at the end of the year,” Rupp said.
In order to return to the state tournament, the Twins will face stiff competition from the Mariners, the reigning district champs, and the two Bitterroot teams, the Red Sox and the Bucs. The Kalispell Lakers A club has a young team that is eager to hold its own against the best in the district.
Last season the Mariners and Twins battled in the district championship, with Mission Valley emerging victorious 12-8. They both advanced to the state tournament and it was the Twins who came out on top, taking down the Mariners, the Belgrade Bandits and lastly the reigning champs, the Laurel Dodgers. Glacier advanced to the Northwest Regional Tournament in Anchorage, Alaska, and the club won its first two games before eventually finishing third out of eight teams.
The Lakers opened the season last weekend against the Bitterroot Red Sox with a pair of non-conference games.
For this latest Lakers squad, it’s all about a fresh start. Last year’s young team took its lumps in the competitive Western AA conference and finished the summer with a 4-20 record. The sour ending motivated the returning players, who showed up to offseason drills and camps.
“They’re just excited about a new season. They’re looking forward. I’m pleased with that approach,” head coach Ryan Malmin, in his 10th season, said.
Pitching should be a particular strength of this club, with Malmin, Brenneman and Brandon Maassen back on the mound. Other returning standouts include Sam Crompton and Andy Bemis. Leif Ericksen also has the potential for a breakout season.
“We have a lot of people competing for a lot of spots and I think that will motivate people to show up and work hard and lead to more success,” Walker Malmin said.
“Each day we’ve been coming to practice with a lot of energy. I think that will carry us through the season.”
In the AA ranks, Medicine Hat appears to be the team to beat, along with Lethbridge and the two Billings clubs, the Scarlets and Royals. The Missoula Mavericks graduated several key players from last year’s championship team but longtime head coach Brent Hathaway has proven to be one of the best when it comes to reloading his lineup.
The Lakers host their annual Canadian Days Tournament May 15-17. The Twins host the Ed Gallo Tournament June 25-28 and the Sapa/Johnsrud Tournament July 9-12.
The Western A district tournament is in Polson, July 23-26. The Class A state tournament is in Kalispell, July 30-Aug. 2.
The Class AA state tournament is in Helena, July 29-Aug. 1.
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