Kalispell Lakers (AA)
The Lakers have regularly rattled off 30-plus wins in recent years, compiling one of the best winning percentages in AA since 2015 and reaching the state title game in 2016, followed by a third-place finish in 2018.
The consistent success is rooted in a combination of a solid talent pipeline and a culture cultivated by head coach Ryan Malmin and his assistants. Malmin, who has been the Lakers head coach for 16 of his 25 years coaching baseball in Montana, describes the guiding philosophy succinctly: “We try to do things the right way.”
“Over the course of 25 years and having great assistant coaches, we feel like we prepare kids as good as anybody in handling pressure,” Malmin said. “We call it pleasure, not pressure, being able to handle any situation in a game. Repetition: do it in practice over and over again, and it shouldn’t be any different than in a game. Overbelief: be confident in who you are. Those are core values that we work through and talk about nearly on a daily basis, and make those connections with the kids.”
Right off the bat, this season put that culture to the test. Three players were lost for the season to injury, while another three or four have battled chronic injuries. The starting pitching staff was decimated, and their top hitter through the season’s early stretch was felled by the injury bug as well.
“We haven’t played with our original roster,” Malmin said. “We’ve had to constantly make adjustments on the fly as we go.”
The adjustments have worked, and the core values preached by Malmin and his staff have provided stability amid the rollercoaster season. The Lakers wrapped up the season ranked in the top three in AA in both runs scored and runs allowed, despite an ever-shifting roster.
“Kids have had to move positions and play bigger roles,” Malmin said. “They’ve risen to the challenge. I couldn’t be more proud of a group of kids.”
The Lakers suffered a few tough losses at the end of the season but still finished 34-18 (11-13 conference) and clinched the fourth seed at the AA tournament, held July 28-Aug. 1 in Great Falls. Kalispell opens up against the fifth-seeded Billings Scarlets on Wednesday at 1 p.m.
In addition to shifting the roster around and calling up kids from the A squad, adjustments have included in-game chess moves such as delayed steals and even a back-to-back squeeze against Helena, tactics that “put pressure on defenses and make them a little uncomfortable,” Malmin said.
“We try to make routine plays behind our pitching and take chances and be aggressive on offense,” Malmin said. “We’re a little unorthodox in some of the things we do: small ball, bunt and run.”
One of team’s top returning pitchers, A.J. Wood, has been lost for the season, while another, Danny Kernan, has battled through injuries and adjusted to a more limited relief role due to his back and arm issues.
“He does everything he can to possibly help his team,” Malmin said. “You have to give him a lot of credit for his toughness and going out there to do what he can. He has a lot of poise.”
Max Holden, only 16 years old, has stepped up to lead the team in ERA, while Ethan Diede and Gage Brink have anchored the offense. Kostya Hoffman has also been a reliable starter on the mound.
“I haven’t had a year like this,” Malmin said. “It’s been unique, challenging, frustrating with all the injuries, but I’m also really proud of the kids in terms of their perseverance.”
Glacier Twins (A)
The Twins have been a powerhouse in recent years, and this year only furthered that trend.
The Whitefish-based team won the district tournament over the weekend, securing the West’s top seed at this week’s state tournament held in Havre from July 29 to Aug. 2. The Twins kick off the state tourney against host Havre at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday.
Second-year head coach Kevin Slaybaugh said his young but talented team is in a good groove heading into state.
“I know we’re a really good ball club, but I know there’s going to be a lot of really good competition,” he said. “We have every chance in the world to win it, but it’s going to be a tough go.”
The Twins, who finished the season 45-14 (13-3 conference), are looking for their first state title since 2018, when they also won the regional tournament. A testament to their youth, the Twins have only one player on their roster who will age out of participating next year. But that player, all-district Zach Veneman, is a crucial piece to this year’s championship puzzle.
“The kids look up to him,” Slaybaugh said.
Veneman batted .316 for Valley City State University in North Dakota this year but was still age-eligible for a final summer of Montana American Legion Baseball. He hit .410 for the Twins this summer, second best on the team behind fellow all-district Stevyn Andrachick (.426). Veneman also had a team-best 1.57 ERA on the mound.
Joining Veneman and Andrachick as all-district selections were Mason Peters and Danny Dunn.
Slaybaugh feels confident in his pitching rotation heading into state. The lineup includes Jacob Polumbus, who led the team in innings pitched and was second in strikeouts.
“Everybody is pitching a little bit better than they were a couple weeks ago,” Slaybaugh said. “That’s gotta make you happy.”
On offense, Slaybaugh said the Twins across the board “are a tough out.”
“With two strikes or with two outs, they just keep battling,” he said. “I’ve heard people comment that we’re just a tough out. We hit pretty much through the lineup.”
Anything can happen at state, but Slaybaugh likes his team’s chances.
“We certainly have as good of a shot at it as anybody,” Slaybaugh said. “We’re playing really well. We’ve got pitching, we play defense and we hit the ball. I think we’re in pretty good shape.”
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