HELENA — Year 2 for the Helena Senators under coach Jon Burnett should see growth among the players.
Burnett was able to implement his expectations so the eight returners know how he wants to approach the season.
He also pegged the senior class as one that can be productive from when he coached them at the lower-level Helena Reps.
Burnett also been able to fill his roster with athletes with the right mentality and cohesiveness to improve on last season’s eighth-place finish in the Class AA state tournament.
“I’m very excited about the squad we got,” Burnett said. “We’ve got the right mix of players. Not only good baseball players, but they are good kids in general. We see the camaraderie building; they like to be around each other. We are excited about the team dynamic.”
The Senators were scheduled to begin the American Legion baseball season Saturday at home at Kindrick Legion Field with doubleheader against the Billings Royals, but it was rained out. The season opener is no at 7 p.m. Tuesday home against the Gallatin Valley Outlaws.
Like any spring sport in the area, the Senators are playing catch-up due to the late snow fall. The difference this season is they are the only tenant at the stadium with the Minor League Baseball Helena Brewers gone.
Expanded space allowed them to build a makeshift indoor batting cage for winter workouts. The Senators also have more room on the calendar for more home games.
“Last year we were a little shell-shocked,” Burnett said. “A lot of guys got their first taste of the varsity experience. They are coming in knowing what to expect now. They know what kind of level they are going to be playing. It’s going to be easier for them.”
The Senators hope to improve through the season that runs until August, and longer if there’s a deep run in the postseason.
Practice time won’t be limited during the season anymore, and the lower division Class A Reps and Class B Independents will gain more access to the baseball facilities.
And the players believe the team’s personality has the right makeup to take advantage of their opportunities.
“It was the passion (that was missing) with some of the teammates last season,” senior pitcher Ryan Barrett said. “We have the passion with the veteran guys, and the passion is there with the younger guys. They want to be out there.”
The Senators are loaded with athletic players. Three seniors — outfielders Zach Spiroff (Carroll College), Ty McGurran (Montana Tech) and infielder Grady Koenig (Montana Tech) — will play college football in the fall.
Senior middle infielder Matt Krieger will play NCAA Division II baseball for the University of Mary in North Dakota next season, and pitcher Peyton Witham will play for NCAA Division III Cornell College in Iowa. Both of them improved their game during the fall playing with the Big Sky Baseball travel team.
Junior Hunter Kirkpatrick played every position in infield, caught and pitched last season. He was named an Under Armour Preseason All-American as a pitcher and shortstop from playing in national pro and college scouting tournaments in the offseason.
“We have well-rounded athletes, multi-sport athletes,” Burnett said. “We’ve been excited about this senior class for a while, and now we get to see them. At times we started eight new starters last year, and they were all underclassmen. We got all those guys back.”
The most experienced area of the field is the outfield. Spiroff was a mainstay in left field last season and McGurran started in center. Both were productive hitters, and they covered plenty of ground on defense.
Seth Barrett and Cy Miller spent time in right field at the end of last season, after starting the season with the Reps.
“We have four guys back in the outfield back who saw pretty good reps on the varsity last year,” Burnett said. “We have lots of pieces to move into different spots. Some of those guys pitch as well. It’s nice to have the outfield depth. They are great athletes. They can run and have good arms.”
The infield has depth concerns. Krieger and Kirkpatrick were regulars in the infield last season. Either one of them can man shortstop. Kirkpatrick, however, is needed to be the catcher more this season.
Koenig played a reserve role last season, but will be looked on to handle third base. The rest of the field will be made up of players coming up from the Reps such as first baseman Chase Nielsen, Ethan Keintz, Hunter Lindgren and Caden Sell.
“I think we are solid in all the spots in the infield,” Burnett said. “I would like a little more infield depth. You are always going to end up with some sort of thing with someone gets injured. It’s something we are going to work on in developing. We got guys who play all four spots. We are experimenting and seeing where they mesh the best.”
Two other catchers from last year besides Kirkpatrick didn’t return this season as expected, so that created a depth concern. However, senior Brady Anderson returned to the program after taking last season off.
“I was a little worried about our catching depth,” Burnett said. “Our only varsity catcher is also one of our top pitchers. We don’t want to put too much catching wear-and-tear on him, and have him out on the mound. Getting Brady Anderson back was important. He’s looking like he didn’t miss a beat. He is a solid defender and really good with the bat.”
While there are options with the position players, pitching is crucial to success. The Senators have depth there with the combination of the returners and those moving up. Burnett feels the pitching staff is about eight deep.
Ryan Burnett was a regular starter last season. Kirkpatrick was a starter and closer at different times. Miller ate up innings and pitched in crucial situations at the end of season. Krieger also picked up innings when needed.
Nielsen, Witham, Lundgren and Keintz were crucial to the success of the Reps last season. So expect them to contribute.
“There have been lots of innings at the AA level, and we brought up guys on the Reps who pitched a ton for them,” Burnett said. “We have some good live arms, and they seem to be guys who can locate multiple pitches. It will be exciting and interesting how we are going to use that.”
There are so many games with American Legion — the Senators will play at least 60 games — that pitching depth will make or break a team with that kind of schedule.
“Our pitching staff is pretty deep this year,” Ryan Barrett said. “We should do a lot better. The defense looks pretty good this year. We have some guys who will be playing college baseball out there.”
Burnett is even looking to Major League Baseball's ideas to use openers instead of starting pitchers. An opener is a pitcher who goes two innings to begin the game, then a series of relievers to finish the game.
The goal is to keep the pitch count down on all the pitchers so they can all come back in a string of games.
“We are looking to be back to state and do better than we did last year,” Krieger said. “We want to push ourselves to be the best we can. We have a lot of guys back, and we are working well together. We just need some team time on the bus rides. We’ll bond, and we'll have a good season.”