Head coach Jon Burnett’s Helena Reps are poised to make a deep run into this weekend’s Montana/Alberta Class A South District tournament, but he isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I feel like this tournament is wide open – there are realistically 6 teams that could win this thing.”
The Reps, a team composed primarily of high school sophomores competing against upperclassmen, have relied on their hot hitting in 2015, posting a .365 overall team batting average on the year. Helena also averages over 10 runs a game.
“This team surpassed my expectations offensively for sure,” said Burnett. “Batting average is nice, but the main goal of this game is to get on base any way you can and score a run. Your job is not done until you come all the way around the bases and step on home plate. Our offensive goal every year is that we want to score 8 runs a game.
“We had a lot of returners that saw success in 2014 at the plate. I expected those returners to improve with hard work and repetition. I also knew that the guys moving up from the Independents had lots of talent and I expected them to compete this year.”
Leading the way at the plate for the Reps is the infield sophomore quartet of Carter Wald (.430 average/.506 on-base percentage), Ray Moore, Jr. (.424/.486), Colin Sassano (.423/.512), and Ryan Arntson (.408/.458). The four .400+ hitters all take a similar view of hitting: Keep it simple – step to the plate and look for your pitch.
“We’ve been taking some really good approaches at the plate this year,” said Wald. “Even on a pitcher’s count, our lineup is patient enough to look for that perfect pitch to drive.”
Sassano has especially had a hot bat as of late, going 17 for 19 at the plate over the last seven games, lacing 6 doubles and producing 13 RBIs. He echoed Wald’s thoughts on finding the right pitch.
“My job at the plate is to look for the perfect pitch in my zone. It doesn’t matter what count it is – I’m looking for THAT pitch,” he said.
The powerful Moore has been one of the most consistent hitters in the lineup, hitting 18 doubles and 3 triples, while leading the team in RBIs and runs scored. He turned the corner from being an “average” player to the power hitter and team leader he is today at a June 2014 tournament in Libby, Mont.
“There’s no secret,” Moore stated. “It’s all about desire. I decided then and there that I wanted to be a great player, so I flipped the switch and haven’t looked back. I just wanted it more.”
Another big hitter in the lineup is junior outfielder Robert McCarvel, who is batting .358 with 10 doubles, a triple, and 2 home runs. McCarvel, who is new to the Helena program after moving from Kalispell last year, has enjoyed his time on the Reps.
“It’s been an easy transition from Kalispell to Helena,” McCarvel said. “My teammates have been awesome, from winter workouts up until now. Some of my best friends are on this team.”
When asked about why hitting seems to come easy for him, McCarvel credited his father, Russell. “My dad always took the time to put in extra work with me. He coached me growing up, and we’d spend a ton of time in our garage hitting off a tee or playing soft toss in the middle of winter, which has really paid off for me at the plate.”
Helena is crowded up and down the lineup with quality bats. Talented sophomores Talon Burchard (.381/.513), Eamonn Byrne (.359/.473), Tanner McMahon (.339/.444), Andrew Rosston (.337/.400), and Kellan Elder (.306/.424) are all pounding the ball for the Reps.
In the outfield and on the mound, Byrne and Burchard have been stalwarts, using their speed to track down balls and using their arms to strike out batters and throw runners out on the base paths. And together with the speedy Arntson, they collectively have swiped 57 of the team’s 118 stolen bases on the year.
Junior Austin Whitehouse (.355/.500) and sophomore Isaiah Meza (.282/.360) have split duties as catcher. Whitehouse is noted for his big arm and hard hit balls, and Meza has come on strong late in the year, especially at the plate, rapping 9 hits in his last 4 games.
On the mound, the Reps have relied on their two aces in big games, McMahon and Brett Jacobs. McMahon has been the reliable workhorse for Helena from the beginning of the year, posting a 10-2 record for the Reps. Additionally, he threw a complete game no-hitter for Helena, the first for the program since 2010.
When asked why he thought he was having such a successful year, McMahon immediately credited his teammates. “I have complete confidence in the defense behind me, so it’s easy to throw strikes. I haven’t pitched much in the past, but I was highly encouraged by our coaches to throw this year. Even though I was reluctant at first, I’ve put in a ton of work on the mound.”
McMahon is eager to take the mound at the district tournament.
“I want the ball in my hand, because I want to prove to myself and to my teammates that all the work I’ve put in has paid off.”
Jacobs, a freshman who began the year on the younger Independents squad, was called up early in the season and has remained on the Reps due to his lights-out pitching. The right-hander is 7-0 on the season with a 2.19 ERA, striking out a team-high 53 batters on the year.
And no slouch at the plate, Jacobs has hit for a .429 average when given the opportunity.
Starting pitchers coming on strong late in the year for Helena have been junior Tristan Siegers and sophomore Caleb Jackson. Siegers suffered a mid-season shoulder injury and has slowly been working his way back, last pitching a victory against Butte. And Jackson has thrown back-to-back complete game shutouts for the Reps in his last two appearances.
In the center of it all has been the pitching of sophomore Max Nielson, who has been a rock in middle relief for Helena. Burnett has used the righty almost exclusively to get out of jams, and Nielson has been especially good late in the season. His 19 appearances is the most of any pitcher for the Reps.
Only one freshman made the team outright at the beginning of 2015 for the Reps – the versatile Seth Schneider. Schneider (.295/.368), seeing limited playing time due to his young age and the array of talent on the field in front of him, has been outstanding both in the field and at the plate when given the opportunity. He will be at the center of a very bright future for the Reps in 2016.
The #4 seeded Reps will face the Deer Lodge Wranglers on Thursday at 10:00 a.m. in Belgrade to open South District tournament play.
“Deer Lodge is a good team that has some veteran players and a returning all-state catcher. But I think (the tournament) is going to come down to what team throws strikes and plays good defense behind their pitcher,” Burnett said. “If we come out and play our brand of baseball – pounding the strike zone, taking quality at-bats, moving runners – we should have a successful tournament.”
Sassano is also optimistic that the team will perform well.
“We’re a confident team right now. I believe we have the potential to win districts and compete at the state tournament.”