The Belgrade Panthers will be charting familiar territory on Thursday. The Panthers have a first round bye and will play their first opponent at five o'clock Thursday night in round two, facing either Libby or Butte Central. Familiar territory, however, might not be as easing on the mind for the Panthers as you may think.
"We've had the first round bye the last two years and lost that game," said Belgrade coach Justin Taylor. "I kind of like the fact that we get to watch the two teams we're gonna play play each other and get a few insider tips on how to strategize against them. But the last two years, like I said, we went in as the one seed and lost our first game."
While the state tournament may be familiar to many players on the Panther's roster, it will be very unfamiliar territory for Belgrade freshman Shania Neubauer. Neubauer will be playing in her first state tournament ever and will be getting the start in the circle for Belgrade.
"I'm nervous," said Neubauer. "First state tournament, freshman, lots of juniors and seniors out there with me. I don't know what to expect."
"Shania has really improved since day one to the point where she's probably thrown as many innings as any of my pitchers," said Taylor. "She's a big strong girl and I think it's suited for her."
Another young player Belgrade will be counting on is sophomore Jordan Branch. Branch tore the cover off the ball during divisionals and capped it off in the championship game by going 3 for 3 at the plate with a double and a home run.
"We're really excited," said Branch. "We're working hard, our hearts are pumping fast. During the divisional tournament we lost one to Park, then we came back amd beat them in the championship. We just want to see what we're capable of in the state tournament."
"The young girls have stepped up and played well," said Taylor. "Jordan's leading the team in home runs. We have a young pitching staff. We've really matured as the season's gone on.
The team may be relying even more on it's young players than normal Thursday. Belgrade High's senior trip annually falls on the week of the state tournament, with seven members of the team arriving back in Belgrade from Utah early this morning. But Coach Taylor says he won't go so far as to say that has played a part in their losses in years past...maybe.
"We can't blame it on the senior trip I don't think," Taylor laughed. "Although, maybe it's the reason we haven't won one yet, I don't know."