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Billings no stranger to Northwest Regional tourney

This isn't the first regional tournament for the Billings Scarlets, and it doesn't figure to be the last.

The Montana representative to the American Legion AAA Northwest Regional is back as a state champion for the third time in four years despite having lost eight players from last season.

The Scarlets morphed from a veteran team to a fresh-faced bunch, but the results have been the same. They defeated Bozeman, 6-3, a week ago in the state championship game and improved their record to 45-14.

"We'll have all our kids back for two more years after this," says coach Adam Hust. "They're all 16-, 17-year-olds."

Hust himself seems a perfect fit to bring the Scarlets to the regional. He played for Billings when it won state in 1993, was an assistant coach on the 2006 title team and, in his third year as head coach, has back-to-back crowns to his credit.

The Scarlets have claimed 10 state championships since their inception in 1975.

That said, it's doubtful they've been much younger than they are this summer.

And, in a Benjamin Button plot, they got younger as they went because of injuries. Two of the three players with significant experience from 2008 were lost for the season to injury. Catcher Tyson Shriver tore a hamstring and center fielder Eric Nell underwent surgery to repair a shoulder injury.

Regardless of its youth, Billings has talent, says Hust.

"They work hard and play as a team," he says, "and this is definitely one of the games you have to play as a team. I use every kid, and they play together as teammates."

The Scarlets have put together winning streaks of varying lengths but haven't lost more than two games in a row, says Hust.

"We play good defense, and offensively, we're very selective at the plate," says the coach. "We get good pitches to hit and put the ball in play. On the mound, we don't have anyone who throws really hard, we just throw strikes. We do a lot of things well and a lot of things clean."

Jordan Roberts is the catalyst as the ace pitcher with a 10-0 record and as the best hitter, batting .475 with six home runs, double-digit triples and doubles and nearly 100 RBIs.

The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder has a handful of scholarship offers to play baseball in college, says Hust, but has decided to forego competition and concentrate on his studies at Montana State University.

"He's one of the better players I've seen in a long time," says Hust. "He's all about school. That's the biggest thing for him."

The left-hander isn't an overpowering pitcher. He relies on a snappy curveball, a befuddling change-up and his wits to tame opposing offenses.

In the state-title win over Bozeman, Roberts gave up six hits and fanned seven while walking one. Two of the three runs he allowed came on a home run. He also drove in two runs and was the tournament most valuable player.

Switch-htting second baseman Aleksei Grosulak provides pop as well but might have to leave the regional early to report to football practice at Montana State, where he'll be a freshman linebacker.

At the top of the batting order, center fielder Justin Black brings speed, and shortstop Ty Gilmore puts the ball in play.

The Scarlets' other top pitchers are Brady Muller and Joe Barta.

In a pivotal state tournament game against Kalispell, Barta pitched a six-hitter and Roberts, Black and Muller each had two RBIs.

The pitching is deeper this year than last, but there's less firepower on offense.

At last year's regional, Billings lost its first two games and was eliminated. In the second game, it had Merced, Calif., on the ropes before an error in the bottom of the ninth inning led to two runs and a one-run loss.

"We're just a different team this year," says Hust. "We're not as talented as last year, but I've got better arms this year. The biggest thing is the kids compete and throw strikes. They don't have a problem giving up some hits and runs as long as the other team earns it. They don't want to give up anything free. You have to earn what you get."

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com