New coach inherits experienced Mavericks baseball team

The Miles City Mavericks American Legion baseball team will have nine seniors in the dugout this summer, and first-year head coach Jake Mills expects their leadership and skill sets to bring some fireworks to Connors Stadium. 

“We have a great work ethic,” Mills said, “and [this is] a group that I truly believe enjoys getting on the field and flat-out getting after it. I’m confident we are very capable of big things.” 

The 2016 Mavs went in to the district tournament as the five-seed and upset the Billings Blue Jays in the first round. They lost to Sidney in the second round, “a heartbreaker,” according to Mills, who was an assistant coach last year. 

“We didn’t end how we wanted, but definitely saw the things that we needed to work on the get to where we want to be.”

The seniors will be counted on for bringing their leadership to the team as Mills transitions from assistant to head coach. 

“The seniors do a great job setting the example of what we are about as a program,” he said. 

Returning starters include Jared Bellows (3B, 1B, RHP), Jacob Swope (UT), Mason Dinardi (CF), Matt Regan (SS/2B), Deven Doughty (1B, RHP), and Braden Marum (1B/OF/RHP). 

Jeremy Newby will return as a 19-year-old, and Brooks Tally and Reilly Conley round out the seniors. 

“Jared [has an] ability to hit the ball the other way with power,” Mills said. “He’s also put in [pitching] work in the offseason that will pay dividends this summer.”

As an all-around player, Mills will be counting on senior Swope. “He is very athletic and one of the hardest workers on the team,” Mills said. “He had a great junior season at the plate, and I have no doubt he is going to carry that over this year.” 

In the outfield, Mills is excited to see Dinardi returning to stalk the extra-large center field. “He is a ball hawk. The kid tracks down fly balls that I think are for sure base hits. Having a guy like that in center is a boost of confidence for whoever is on the mound.” 

Marum started seeing time in right field last season, and Mills is confident that between Marum and Dinardi, not many balls are going to drop in right-center. 

“I can see that he is much more comfortable on defense,” Mills said of Marum. “I can see him making a big impact for us this season.”

Deven Doughty is the Mavs’ returning first baseman, but he does double-duty as a right-handed pitcher. 

“Dev pitched a ton of quality innings for us,” Mills said. “He has good velocity. I think this year could be the break-out year for Dev on the mound.”

Leading off the Mavs’ lineup — or maybe in the two-spot, Mills isn’t quite sure yet — will be shortstop Matt Regan. “He has great hands and even better feet and can make the routine plays consistently,” Mills said. “He runs really well, and adds a left-handed bat to our lineup.” 

The strength in the returning players, however, is also a challenge. 

“A majority of these guys play more than one sport, which I love,” Mills said. “I am a firm believer that [other sports] will make you a better baseball player. The only downside is that guys can’t be at every practice, especially early in the season.” 

Doughty and sophomores Kole Lohrke and Tristen Reno (Colts) compete on the Custer County District High School tennis team, and Jess Bellows, Reilly Conley, Clay Prell and Cameron Muri are all on the CCDHS track and field team. 

Mills has also assigned players to the Colts, a Mavericks feeder program that’s been on-again, off-again. The Colts team bridges the gap between the Babe Ruth league and the Mavs, and several players are double-rostered, meaning they will suit up for both the Colts and the Mavs. 

The waxing and waning of the existence of the Colts program has illustrated the flow of American Legion ball in Miles City. The Mavs have also seen a high turnover in coaching staff. They’ve struggled with rostering players, with competing within the conference, and those are things Mills said he is looking to change.  

“I think our biggest challenge is going to be changing the culture of the program,” he admitted. “My belief is that winning or losing are both habits and changing habits isn’t easy.”

He gave a nod to former Mavericks head coach (and current Miles Community College Pioneer head coach, and Mills’ boss) Jeff Brabant.

“He’s done some great things with the program to take strides toward changing the atmosphere, but we still have a ways to go before getting over the hump,” he said in reference to taking the program to new heights competitively. 

 “We have the talent to be a great team,” he said, “and if guys show up with the mentality that they will put their best foot forward on any given day, we can reach that full potential.”

Mills has set a few goals for the 2017 season in hopes of lighting a fire in his team.

He’s looking to win the district championship, win the annual Harry Griffith Tournament, advance players to the college level, take home big wins against conference rivals, and, as most coaches do, Mills wants a state championship. 

“The key is taking a stride every day we get to the ballpark,” he said. “Whether it’s a big stride or a small step, anything is better than taking a step back.”

He expects Laurel to be the favorite in the conference this year, with the Billings Cardinals and Blue Jays both in contention as well. 

“I think our strategy is going to be just to take care of our business,” he said. “If we play our game, throw strikes, play defense, and stick to our approach at the plate, we can compete with any team in the conference.”

“If we can control us, we are going to be sitting well at the end of the year, and we’ll have a pretty good chance of punching our ticket to state.”