Griffin Field, home of the Kalispell Lakers, has been prepping for this all year.
With the help of Lakers players, coaches, volunteers and local businesses, more than 4,000 square feet of new sod has been put down, the mound has been rebuilt, a brand new batter’s eye installed in center field and new foul poles are set to be erected later this summer.
Keaden Morisaki, Sam Elliott and the rest of their 18-year-old Lakers teammates have been eyeing this year, too, ever since they joined the program three summers ago.
And for Ryan Malmin, their coach, 2018 is a season 13 years in the making.
The Kalispell Lakers will host the Class AA Montana/Alberta American Legion state tournament for the first time in Malmin’s career as the program’s head coach in late July, and when they do the team is looking to bounce back from a disappointing end to the 2017 season and, if all the cards fall right, earn the program’s first state championship in 40 years.
“We try not to focus on it now,” Malmin said while trying to stifle a smile last week after a recent Lakers practice at Griffin Field. “The kids have done a tremendous job. We’ve had great community support and we’ve had great parent support, program support.”
Morisaki remembers the first time he heard about the 2018 state tournament. It was the day he tried out for the team.
“I remember when we were 15 we met with coach Malmin and he told us that in 2018, which would be our last year, we were having the state tournament here,” Morisaki said. “And so that’s always been a motivator for me — that my last games would be here, in front of the home crowd, with a state title on the line.”
Morisaki and his teammates have a long way to go before the tourney, but with an automatic berth already secured by virtue of hosting the event and the nonconference season almost behind them, the Lakers are starting to zero in on ending that 40-year drought.
Through the first 16 games of the nonconference season the Lakers went a modest 10-6, mixing exemplary performances with disappointing ones and all the while fine-tuning their lineup and pitching rotation for the rigorous conference slate that begins June 3.
“We’re moving guys around a little bit in terms of positions,” Malmin said. “All 13 position players are getting their at bats and we’ve been pretty good about getting guys their innings in this early season to see who’s going to step forward and earn those starting spots.”
One starting spot not in question is that of Elliott, an all-state basketball player at Flathead High School who is the Lakers’ ace. He was an all-conference pitcher last season and has a 3.83 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 19.1 innings through his first five appearances in 2018. He’s also developed a symbiotic relationship with his catcher, Morisaki, who has been behind the plate throughout Elliott’s Lakers career.
“Keaden’s always in control behind the plate,” Elliott said. “He’s always a calming force as well as being strong back there for me to rely on.”
Morisaki has earned enough trust from Malmin and the coaching staff that he calls pitches for Elliott, something that’s gotten easier the more the two are paired together.
“I have the ability to shake him off,” Elliott said. “But for the most part I don’t have to because Keaden knows what he wants to do with the batter and he knows what I want to do as well.”
“There’s a level of comfort and confidence and trust within one another,” Malmin said of Elliott and Morisaki’s relationship. “Keaden has been able to get to the point where he can call pitches for those guys and they’re on the same page pretty much all the way through the outing.”
As much of an impact as Morisaki makes behind the plate, he’s also enjoying a career year offensively. In 2017, Morisaki caught almost every game and the punishment he took behind the plate took a toll on him offensively. But this year, with Jonathan Carver sharing some of the catching duties, Morisaki is batting .414, almost 200 points higher than a year ago.
And Morisaki isn’t alone having a career offensive season. The Lakers have swung the bats extremely well, hitting .359 as a team and averaging nine runs per game. Eric Seaman is hitting .450 and slugging .625, Randy Stultz checks in at .351 with 12 extra-base hits, and Taylor Morton, in his first season with the AA team, is batting .400 with 13 RBIs. Kalispell is also wreaking havoc on the bases, going 49-for-51 so far in stolen bases.
Despite all that, the Lakers’ strength still might be its experienced pitchers, especially now that one of the program’s most famous alums has joined the coaching staff. Joe Pistorese, who played in the Seattle Mariners minor league system from 2015 through earlier this spring, came aboard as an assistant coach in May and has given Malmin a pitching-focused assistant for the first time in his career.
“The great benefit of having him here is we can run our team practice and he can run individual or staff practices with the pitchers and we’re not going to miss a beat,” Malmin said. “To have that for our pitching staff is huge.”
Elliott, Drew Sherrer and Dawson Smith are all returning starters, and closer Johan Freudenburg is in his second season in that role. While Sherrer has been the best of the bunch, at least by the numbers, with a 1.08 ERA so far this year, Elliott’s maturity still makes him well suited for the biggest moments.
“When you look at an ace you want to look to a guy who exudes that confidence and has poise and commands the strike zone, and Sam has done that for us the last two years,” Malmin said. “He doesn’t let things get to him, he moves onto the next pitch and he’s confident in throwing any of his pitches in any situation. That’s what you need from any guy who’s going to be your bulldog.”
Morisaki, Elliott’s longtime battery mate, agrees.
“In baseball, more often than not you’re going to fail,” Morisaki said. “So being able to re-focus and recover from that and win the next pitch is a big thing, and something that we focus on a lot and that Sam does well.”
In the 2017 state tournament, Elliott was effective but the losing pitcher in a first-round setback against Helena and the Lakers were eliminated the next day with a loss to host Bozeman.
This year, when the state tournament rolls around, the Lakers will be in front of their home crowd, on their renovated home field, and likely with Elliott back on the bump. It’s a place he’s wanted to be for three years now.
“Being that we didn’t have success last year it’s kind of a chip on a lot of our shoulders to come back and really make a big mark at state, especially hosting it,” Elliott said. “It’s nice to be able to have that final tournament in front of (our fans) with their support.”
The Class AA Montana/Alberta American Legion state tournament is July 28-Aug. 1 at Griffin Field. The Lakers have nine home dates on the schedule before the tournament, and for more information including a complete schedule visit www.kalispelllakers.org.