The names Pioneers fans have come to know and rely upon during its championship run — Scotty Jameson, Grant Geiser, Colter Bostick, Dallas Robirds, Auston Carter — are gone. Pioneer head coach Mike Jameson doesn’t even try to sugar coat the impact those departures have.
“Those guys definitely left some big shoes to fill,” Jameson said. “Losing that group definitely leaves a void. Now it’s time for this next group to step up and make their mark on the Pioneer program. It’s time for a new group to make their impact.”
And let’s be clear — Jameson’s “new group” doesn’t exactly enter the summer without a pedigree of its own. Several of the new faces on the team’s roster have been part of Powell’s back-to-back run as state Babe Ruth champions.
“It is definitely nice to have these kids that are used to winning and who have that standard set for themselves,” Jameson said.
That’s not to say that everything is new for the Pioneers this year. The team will be led into action by 2010 second team all-state selection Tyler England, who produced a .413 batting average and 74 runs scored last summer.
Josh Cragoe, the team’s top returning home run hitter with five round-trippers last summer, hit for a .374 average last summer and has also been part of both of the Pioneers’ previous regional tournament appearances. Colt Nix, who drew a team-best 36 walks last summer while batting .338, is similarly back.
On the hill, Jake Beuster, a 6-1 performer on the mound, will be looked upon to lead the team as its ace this year.
“We’ve seen how good Jake can be at times,” Jameson said, alluding to Beuster’s performance at the 2010 Northwest Region tournament in Bozeman. “He can be a dominant pitcher if he has his command. We’re looking for him to be the ace this year and to take control of the pitching staff.”
That staff will include Cragoe (2-3 last season) and Nix (3-3, 3 saves) as well.
Beyond that, however, the Pioneers will be journeying into uncharted territory. Returning Pioneers like Gage Henderson, Nathan Fulton and Garrett Czapla will be called upon to step forward from the role of subs to full-time status this summer. Roster names like Cooper Wise, Seth Gilmore, Frankie Vogt, Hayden Cragoe, Cody Wichman and Justin Lynn will have to make the transition from Babe Ruth to Legion baseball.
“It’s a pretty big jump, especially the pitching,” notes Jameson. “You can’t just ride fast balls down the middle. You have to spot your pitches, throw your second and third pitches for strikes. Batting, you need to take a good approach and understand the game more.”
As inspiration for making that transition, members of last year’s regional semifinalist Babe Ruth team might want to look to Pioneer Olie Olson. Olson made that transition a year ago, producing a .343 batting average while driving in 52 runs as a regular starter. Olson also put in time on the mound, producing a 3-1 mark in his first full American Legion season.
“Those kids have already played against some of the best teams and players in the region,” Jameson said. “They just need to ride it up into that level here now. One of the big things we’ve talked about this spring is that they can’t wait until they’re 18 or 19 to play. We need them to do it now and we want them to be confident that they can do it now.”
The Pioneers open play this Sunday with a 5:30 p.m. game against the Billings Blue Jays. The contest will be a nine-inning affair. The team travels to Sheridan for a doubleheader on May 7 and also hits the road for a May 14 twinbill against the Billings Halos. The team opens the home portion of its schedule on May 21 when the Halos journey south for a return doubleheader.
One noteworthy change from past seasons for Pioneer fans will be a change to the Northwest Conference for this summer. Realignment sends former conference member Jackson to the Southeast this summer. Riverton slides up to take its place alongside Cody, Lovell and the Pioneers.
“It will make it nicer travel-wise,” said Jameson. “Riverton is a competitive group and having them in the Northwest makes more sense travel-wise for the other three teams up here. I think it will benefit everybody.”