Lakers look for elusive title

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  • Kalispell Lakers outfielder Ryan Symmes is greeted by his teammates after sliding home for a run against Billings early this month. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Lakers manager Ryan Malmin instructs hitters during batting practice on Friday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

  • Kalispell Lakers outfielder Ryan Symmes is greeted by his teammates after sliding home for a run against Billings early this month. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Lakers manager Ryan Malmin instructs hitters during batting practice on Friday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

KALISPELL — Just one more out.

That’s all that stood between the Kalispell Lakers AA baseball team and the Montana/Alberta American Legion state title it has not captured since 1978.

But like the championship, the final out proved elusive.

The Billings Scarlets scored four runs with two outs in the top of the seventh inning, sending Kalispell to a stunning 6-5 loss in the final game of its season.

A year later, the devastating loss in the state championship game still lingers in the minds of the returning Lakers, who now find themselves on a quest to return to the game — and finish the job this time.

“From my perspective and I’m sure from the kids’, it’s motivation,” Lakers AA coach Ryan Malmin said. “I think what it does for the program is there’s a level of belief that yeah, you can accomplish that. You can compete with anybody in the state.”

The Lakers have proven as much so far this season, surging to a 20-7 overall record and a tie for first place in the state with a 3-1 conference record.

Kalispell has played its best baseball of late. Malmin’s squad has won 14 of its last 15 games, including 13 in a row before a doubleheader split at Billings on Wednesday.

“The kids love the game, and they’re not afraid to come out here and work,” Malmin said. “They’re willing to be challenged. They’re focusing hard on the mental side of the game. The great thing that we’ve seen is we’ve seen growth from one week to the next. When you get that and you see that development, it’s truly fun to watch.”

The Lakers have spent this season toeing the fine line between using last season’s second-place finish as motivation and living in the past.

It’s a new year, and the team has moved on and turned its eyes to what’s ahead. But that doesn’t mean the disappointment is forgotten.

“We obviously want to win state this year,” said Haydn Schlepp, a center fielder and catcher who is one of just three returning starters from last year’s team. “That’s the main goal. It’s on our mind, but at the same time, we have to take one game at a time and one pitch at a time. We’re just focused on the process, not the final end result.”

Though the Lakers are off to a hot start this season, Malmin is quick to guard against complacency. He said Kalispell, a young team compared to last year’s senior-laden squad, still needs to make progress “everywhere,” including in its consistency at the plate.

“We put up 15 hits against the Scarlets in Game 2, but in Game 1, I think we put up four hits and had too many strikeouts and popups,” Malmin said. “It’s being more consistent and getting more quality at-bats.”

The Lakers have had a pair of close calls under Malmin’s watch. They finished third in the state tournament in 2009 and reached the state title game in 2016 for the first time since the 1978 championship.

The 2017 team’s goal is to do what its predecessors in 2009 and 2016 could not — bring the first-place hardware back to the Flathead Valley.

“It motivates us a lot, because we’re representing Kalispell as a whole,” Schlepp said. “A lot of the teams don’t think of us as (a top team) because we don’t have a semipro team or stuff like that. But we like the diversity, and we just keep on going trying to get better.”

Though there is still work to be done, Malmin believes the goal of a state title is well within reach.

“In competition, they don’t flinch,” he said. “Nothing seems to get in their way. … Belief is an important thing, and the confidence is an important thing. I think these kids have that. The state, in and of itself, is pretty balanced this year. So we’ll just have to continue to do what we’ve done the last four or five weeks, which is get better every week and play our best baseball at the end of July.”

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