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As Montana's first baseball season starts, many schools have yet to batter up

The Sidney/Fairview Eagles baseball team poses for a team photo
Sidney Eagles
The Sidney/Fairview Eagles are among the 21 teams playing in Montana's inaugural baseball season.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, the Sidney/Fairview Eagles are getting in some batting practice in a parking lot at the Richland County Fairgrounds.

The Eagles are among the twenty-one teams around Montana playing as the inaugural season of high school baseball is underway.

The team is excited to be a part of the first year, says Head Coach Hunter Gordon.

“As far as Sidney, once they passed baseball in the state, I want to say last winter, the discussion started right away in Sidney,” comments Coach Gordon.

The Montana High School Association added baseball in January 2022, leaving Wyoming and South Dakota as the only two states without a high school program.

Some school districts jumped at the chance to field a team. But others — including most of the state's largest district — don't have firm plans to play ball just yet.

One hurdle: the cost.

“It costs somewhere around $100,000 in startup costs to buy equipment and things needed to start up for all three programs,” said Mark Wahl, activities director for Billings Public Schools. “And that would have to be fund-raised.

"Then the other costs are the yearly operational costs which are thought to between $120,000 -$140,000 at least as this point through the district."

Another issue in Billings is the limited number of fields. Billings Heights currently has no field that meets high school baseball standards. And if, or when, Billings Central High School adds baseball, they’ll also be competing for a place to play.

Little League fields around town won’t suffice because they don’t have pitchers mounds and the outfields have short fences — or they’re too small.

"That’s another financial burden," Wahl said. "The field that would be available to us would be rented… shared. There’d have to be some updates to those, maybe fences moved, mounds added.

"That’s just an additional cost."

Field access has been a problem for the schools that are playing baseball. Five schools —Butte, Butte Central, Belgrade, Lone Peak in Big Sky and Columbia Falls — had not yet played a single game as of Monday because of snow and cold.

Butte and Belgrade are the only AA schools participating this season.

Schools adding baseball will expand over the next few years, said Scott Wilson with MHSA. Livingston will play in 2024.

Great Falls Athletic Director Mike Henneberg says the district is having ongoing internal conversations about possibly adding the sport at Great Falls and CM Russell High Schools in the next two years or so.

"It’s not as easy as saying we’re going to start it."

Billings Activities Director Mark Wahl says the district could add baseball in the next couple of years because Billings is a baseball kind of town.

“There’s a lot of support for baseball in Billings,” Wahl said. "This is not a matter of wondering whether we could get support for it. It’s not as easy as saying we’re going to start it. There’s a lot going on and we’d have to mesh with all of those programs already going on."

Despite the canceled and postponed games because of the spring weather, there’s lots of enthusiasm among the athletes playing this year, like Hayden Conn from Sidney, who’s been playing baseball since he was about 3 years old.

“Playing this first season feels good," he said. "Looking forward to it. Looking like we have a pretty solid team, hopefully."

Sidney/Fairview is a co-op team, one of four this season. Coach Hunter Gordon says co-ops give more ballplayers a chance to play ball.

“Some of these smaller schools that would not get a chance to field a program themselves gives us the chance to add a couple of kids. So we have two kids from Fairview that are playing for us,” Gordon said.

He says it's about giving kids the opportunities otherwise they might not have.

Kay Erickson has been working in broadcasting in Billings for more than 20 years. She spent well over a decade as news assignment editor at KTVQ-TV before joining the staff at YPR. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, with a degree in broadcast journalism. Shortly after graduation she worked in Great Falls where she was one of the first female sports anchor and reporter in Montana.