MOUND — The Butte Miners are hoping Friday’s home final will be less of a swansong and more of the start of a long playoff series.
The Miners (29-8, 14-0) can officially clinch first place in South District A, giving them the top seed and a bye to the first round of the district tournament, in their 6 p.m. doubleheader. against Belgrade Bandits at 3 Legends. Stadium.
Belgrade swept a doubleheader against the Bozeman Bucks on Thursday night. The Bandits won 3-1 in Game 1 and 18-1 in Game 2. Belgrade has only two defeats in South A. For the miners to win tonight (Friday), they must win both games. If they split, the Miners would need a win on Sunday against the Helena Reps. If Belgrade wins both games at Butte, the Miners would need a Reps sweep to claim first.
Friday will also be Butte’s senior night, the last regular season home game for six minors.
That puts a lot on the plate for Butte head coach Jim LeProwse, who was just named the first-ever baseball head coach for the Butte Bulldogs. He wants to win. He wants to honor his elders. He wants to protect the Miners’ perfect record in the South A game.
And he wants to do everything in front of as many people as possible.
“The more people, the better,” LeProwse said. “And I think it’s good baseball, it’s fun to watch. We’re going to give it our all to try and sweep them tomorrow night.”
Butte’s three seniors are Eric Hart, Kenley Leary and George Riojas, all of whom graduated from high school in 2022. Hart will play next season at Jamestown University and Riojas will no longer be eligible.
Butte’s three “super” seniors – all of whom are freshmen in college but still young enough to play this season – are Aidan Lee, Eagan Lester and Evan Starr.
“They were a big part of the program,” LeProwse said. “We have some holes to fill next year.”
LeProwse, in his first season with the Miners, has sung the praises of his team’s maturity and team spirit all year.
“I couldn’t be more grateful for their leadership and support. All six have been fantastic,” LeProwse said.
Leary is still considering his college baseball options. LeProwse said Leary will be able to visit campuses and make a decision after the underage season ends.
“No matter where he decides to go, he’ll be a factor right from the start,” LeProwse said. “He’s such a phenomenal athlete.”
Leary is the only senior who will be eligible to play for the Miners in 2023.
Starr, a catcher in his fourth year with the Miners, attended Montana Tech as a rookie but has an offer to play baseball at another college in Montana next year.
“I realized that spending a year in school and not playing baseball…it was tough,” Starr said. “It’s just something I’ve known since I was very little. My father always tells me that I was forbidden to knock inside what I was two years old because I broke Something.”
LeProwse said Riojas was an unsung hero in his one and only season with the Miners.
“He came in and finished a few games for us,” LeProwse said. “It was crucial, his role…sometimes we count on him late in the game to get six outs.”
Riojas said he was happy to play his role as best he could to help the team win, and he relished all the friendships he made while playing.
“Just being there with the guys. They’re all the best,” Riojas said. “I learned a lot from Jim, he’s a great coach, him and Luke (Stajcar).”
Lester studies at Tech and considers a career in physiotherapy. He said he knew his days as a baseball player would soon be behind him, but he already plans to be in the crowd enjoying Miners games next year.
“I think it was one of the best times of my life, honestly,” Lester said. “Playing with my teammates and having fun with them. I will definitely miss that.”
Lester recalls the excitement of playing in 3 Legends Stadium’s inaugural season.
“When it first opened it was really cool because we had never had a field like this,” Lester said. “The view up there is amazing. I love playing in this stadium.”
Riojas, Lester and Starr each said the camaraderie between players and coaches was a highlight of their time as minors.
Starr epitomized that with parting words he wanted to share.
“I want to congratulate all the seniors – George, Eric and Kenley – for persevering as long as they have,” Starr said. “I just wish them the best for the rest of their lives.”