Baseball Teams Face Delays, Lingering Snow with Start of Inaugural Season

Whitefish and Columbia Falls high schools canceled their first faceoff due to lingering winter conditions; coaches navigate building team culture from scratch

By Micah Drew
Baseball practice. Beacon file photo

On April 4, the Whitefish Bulldogs baseball team stepped foot on the school’s diamond for the first time.

“We could only use about a quarter of it,” senior pitcher Ty Schwaiger, a Washington State University commit, said. “There was so much snow still.”

The same scene has played out across Montana as the 21 teams making up the first Montana High School Association (MHSA) sanctioned baseball season face lingering winter conditions. A Thursday rivalry game between the Bulldogs and the Wildcats was canceled, as was Whitefish’s game against Browning on Friday. Columbia Falls had two March games against schools in the Bitterroot canceled, as well as one in Cut Bank last weekend.

But the wintry weather has done nothing to diminish the excitement of the players and coaches who get to take part in this historic season.

“These kids want to be at practice, they want to be diving for baseball that might be just out of reach,” Bulldogs coach Kyler Blades said. “They’re just excited to be out there wearing green and gold.”

Both Whitefish and Columbia Falls have been practicing inside over the last few weeks. Columbia Falls coach Bill Sapa called it “challenging” to try to piece together a team culture from scratch without the benefit of simulating full practices and games but said the response from his players was heartening.

“Everyone’s on board with working through the fundamentals — hit, throw, field — even though it’s been in the gym,” he said. “There hasn’t been any whole-team work yet on offensive strategy or defensive work, but that will all come together in time.”

Sapa’s family, the longtime owners of the Blue Moon, have a long history being involved in the Columbia Falls baseball scene, having supported all levels of the game for more than five decades.

One form of support is the annual Sapa-Johnsrud summer baseball tournament hosted by the American Legion each year that honors two baseball players —Bill’s brother, Jimmy, and Ray Johnsrud — who died in a car-train accident in 1984. Both played for the Glacier Twins, who opted to start a tournament in their honor in 1985 and the 38th edition will take place this year. The baseball stadium in Columbia Falls is named Sapa-Johnsrud Field.

Bats lean against a wall at a baseball practice. Beacon file photo

“Being able to continue honoring my brother and add to the family’s support for the game in the valley makes coaching this inaugural season a real honor,” Bill Sapa said. “Baseball has always been good to the Sapa family.”

Bill Sapa also played for the Glacier Twins when he was a teenager and earned a full ride to play for the University of New Mexico. His sons picked up the game as well, with his youngest playing for the Wildcats this year.

All the great parts of life can be found on the baseball field.

Bill Sapa

“Baseball, like a lot of high school athletics, serves as a good life lesson for these kids. You learn the skills you need to be successful later, like integrity, hard work and dedication,” Sapa said. “It’s really a microcosm for life. All the great parts of life can be found on the baseball field.”

While Columbia Falls will finally take the field for the first time on Friday in Troy, Whitefish has gotten in a first game, pulling off a win against Corvallis on March 23.

The 14-3 final score belied the rust-busting that the Bulldogs felt in the dugout. The team is full of top stars, including Schwaiger, Bulldogs quarterback Fynn Ridgeway and Nick Polumbus, all three of whom play on the same travel team, as well as many talented multisport players who haven’t been on a diamond in years.

“Across the board, from our veteran seniors who play ball to the kids who haven’t picked up a bat in years, it was just ear-to-ear smiles as soon as we finally stepped foot on the field,” Blades said. “Once bat met ball, we were off to the races. But even though we came away with the first win, there’s definitely a lot of things we need work on as a team.”

For Schwaiger, the feeling of putting on a Bulldogs uniform in his favorite sport gives makes the season extra special.

“My teammates are the friends I used to play with years ago before we started travel ball or Legion, or just switching sports, so coming together for the school is really cool,” he said. “It was a little weird being on the field for the first time this year and we were a little rusty as a team, but after the first inning it was like we’d been doing this forever.”

“We want to give Whitefish the stamp of being the baseball powerhouse for Montana and leave a winning legacy behind for kids to look up to.”

Whitefish will host Butte on April 13, weather permitting.