High School Home Run

July 1, 2024

Article by Kelly McCandless | Photos by Dennis Lordemann

“I played baseball growing up, and it was a significant part of my upbringing,” Smith explained. “I see that in other kids, too. And while Little League is strong, after age 12, there are a lot of players who quit the game because baseball is not a school sport in Billings.” - DJ Smith

The love of the game drives us to play hard and cheer loudly. And if our kids are on the field, there’s little we won’t do to support their devotion to the game. We buy the gear, pay for lessons, and drive endlessly to practices and games, giving up evenings and weekends because we love their passion for it.

When kids start a sport young, most look forward to playing for their high school someday. We boast a robust Little League supporting softball and baseball for kids in the Billings area. But for our baseball athletes, that dream of playing in high school hasn’t been a possibility… until now.

Starting in the spring of 2025, Billings Public Schools will offer baseball as a choice for high school students. In 2022, the Montana High School Association (MHSA) officially sanctioned baseball as a sport for Montana high schools. By 2023, thirty-one schools, represented by twenty-five teams, participated in high school baseball. The cost of getting baseball started was prohibitive for School District II, though, and many nearby schools were holding off for similar reasons. Now, the dominoes are falling.

What’s Cooking?

In May 2023, the Advocates for Billings Baseball (ABB) began collaborating with Billings Public Schools to establish a program. They conducted a student survey to gauge interest in high school baseball and met with representatives from Little League, Billings American Legion Baseball, the Mustangs, and City Parks and Recreation. Together, these parties committed to collaborate in offering high school baseball. ABB also developed an annual operating budget including the costs of start-up inventory and other necessary expenses.

In December 2023, ABB presented a funding proposal to the SD2 school board, which was approved on the condition that the program be fully funded through public-private partnership fundraising efforts for the first three years. The cost? $506,000. 

Community Support

As soon as the SD2 school board approved the plan, the community got excited. ABB put together a fundraising plan and started pounding pavement.

DJ Smith, one of the lead members of ABB, was one of the first to commit to making baseball a reality. DJ and his wife, Emily, are long-time residents and business owners with kids who play sports. DJ has coached for years. He is passionate about sports and believes high school baseball is vital for student-athletes.

 “I played baseball growing up, and it was a significant part of my upbringing,” Smith explained. “I see that in other kids, too. And while Little League is strong, after age 12, there are a lot of players who quit the game because baseball is not a school sport in Billings.” He continued to describe other wonderful options for youth to continue playing after aging out of Little League, but some options can be intimidating and require a considerable commitment of time and money. “High School baseball could bridge that gap. The shorter season and smaller financial commitment may keep more boys in the game,” Smith continued. 

Mark Sulser, SD2’s athletic director, echoed the positive impact baseball will bring. Sulser has worked for 32 years in public education, including years as a coach and activities director at Senior. “I look forward to going to work, and I still do to this day. I get to help all kids, teachers, and sports. I love it.”

According to Sulser, the kids are super excited, and it comes down to serving students. Offering high school baseball opens so many doors,” Sulser noted. We have a great following in our high schools. The events are well attended by our kids and their communities.”

Making it Happen

ABB partnered with the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools so donors can make tax-deductible contributions to funding high school baseball. The Foundation is holding all funds and will turn them over to SD2 to cover the costs of implementing high school baseball.

“The first year is the most expensive and the most critical,” explained Smith. “Securing fields, purchasing equipment and uniforms, building the whole program. Years two and three should be operational for the most part: coaching, competition fees, etc. And after year three, Billings Public Schools will hopefully take on the costs to continue the program themselves.”

With the first-year fundraising goals met, thanks to generous donations and SCHEELS for donating the equipment, kids will hit the fields in the spring of 2025. “It’s all about partnerships,” said Sulser. “Since our high schools don’t have baseball fields, partnerships with Legion and the Mustangs will be key to our success.”

And the momentum behind baseball doesn’t start or stop in Billings. More communities across the state are getting baseball figured out, meaning the competitions will heat up. “Now that Billings has baseball, many other communities are getting going as well. Missoula and Butte are working toward it, along with Laurel and Central High School. The momentum is real,” Sulser said.

According to Smith, though, the momentum is most visible with the kids. “I have a boatload of messages from kids I’ve coached who are congratulating us on making this happen. These kids are the ones thanking the donors. They want to play and represent their schools.” 

Keep it Going!

While play starts next spring, the next two years still need money to make them happen, which is what ABB continues to focus on. When asked what they need most, Smith said, “committed funds and generous donors.” People can donate online at https://givebutter.com/highschoolbaseball or connect with them on Facebook to get involved: https://www.facebook.com/advocatesforbillingsbaseball.

With community support behind baseball, the upcoming student-athletes are sure to deliver. Each swing and slide builds skills and lasting memories. And, as they said in the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” The kids are ready to get started! So, let’s PLAY BALL! SLM

Kelly McCandless is a Billings native who loves a well-planned adventure, being outdoors when the weather is nice, historical fiction, and hot coffee. She’s passionate about writing, cooking, education, travel, and doing all of these things with her husband Ryan and their two incredible daughters.

Originally printed in the July 2024 issue of Simply Local Magazine

Check this article out in the digital issue of Simply Local here!

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