A wide puddle sits between first and second base, the mound still protected by a tarp. Though it’s difficult to see spring looking out across the Jackson Giants’ home baseball field, that hasn’t stopped the team from getting in its reps.
In fact, the Giants won’t host their first of five home tournaments until next month, but they’ve already played four games this year, with a 2-2 split in a recent trip to Arizona.
Considering the team is still unable to take its soggy field and spends its time hitting off tees huddled around batting cages at practice, the road trip was a resounding success.
“The kids played really well, considering we haven’t been outside at all,” 10th-year manager Jason Huggins said. “They played phenomenal; they hit the ball well, and they pitched well.”
Huggins lauded his team’s efforts through the winter and early spring this year, and he expects that commitment to result in another hugely successful campaign. The team has been on the cusp of the state championship the past three seasons, and it returns with depth and veteran experience.
Last year Jackson wrapped up a 39-19 American Legion baseball season with a loss to Cheyenne Post, a game short of the championship. If there’s a time for Jackson to get over that state semifinal hump, the players hope it’s now.
“With so much veteran presence, we do expect to go further,” Huggins said. “That’s our expectation, that’s what we want, and that’s what the kids want.”
That veteran presence starts with Anthony Bleggi, who returns to the Giants from college. Huggins said Bleggi has performed well for the Miles City Community College baseball squad in Montana.
After him, four Jackson Hole High School seniors lead the charge. Matt Ellingson returns as the team’s starting center fielder and one of the best ball players in Wyoming. A year ago he led the state in steals and took home All-State honors.
Nate Fairbanks returns as a lanky right-handed pitcher and third baseman, who Huggins said will be relied on alongside Bleggi to lead the team’s deep pitching rotation.
Junior Seth Christiansen is expected to play shortstop, but he’s also as capable a pitcher as the Cowboy State has to offer. A year ago he led the state with 12 wins from the mound.
Quentin Bruno, expected to start behind the plate, and middle infielder Gus Armijo round out the senior class.
Huggins also said juniors Parker Bleggi and Will Walker will be expected to produce this year. Bleggi is returning from an injury that cost him the entire season a year ago. Walker is a utility player who stood out on the team’s trip to Arizona.
And while Anthony Bleggi and Fairbanks seem a solid 1-2 punch for Jackson on the mound this year, Huggins said his whole team, top to bottom, is capable of throwing strikes.
It’s an aspect woven into the team intentionally. Jackson could technically qualify for Single A ball, but the team chose instead to compete at the Double A level to take on higher levels of competition once the postseason begins.
To make up for a roster that might be slightly undersized against the rest of the state, and to stay fresh through some 70 games a season, creativity in lineups is key.
“When we’re in these tournaments, the way that you get through them is everybody has to pitch,” Huggins said. “That’s something that we started probably back in 2012, 2013. … That’s what’s helped us these last two to three years.”
Another help to the program is expected to come in the form of a brand-new facility just off the side of the baseball field.
The Breeze Training Facility, a 115-foot-by-30-foot structure that will hold an indoor batting cage, weight room and locker room, was announced in January and originally expected to begin construction this month.
The construction timeline has shifted, partially because of Jackson’s heavy home schedule this year. Huggins said the facility will look to break ground once the season closes in July.
In the meantime, Jackson has set itself up with a nonstop, high-level competition schedule in its march toward a deeper run at the state tournament. A host of nationally renowned programs are expected to be in town for Jackson’s July Fourth tournament, including last year’s Legion World Series teams from Excelsior, Minnesota, and the Mountain View Toros from Meridian, Idaho.
“They want to play the best that they can and play the best teams that they can to help them at the end of the year,” Huggins said. “That’s why we’re out here in April, and it’s 40 degrees. These kids, they work extremely hard for that end of the year goal that we want.”