John Letasky: Recalling moments in sports that made the last 12 months great

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Austin Cardwell

Austin Cardwell of Billings rides during the 450 Pro class of the Great American Pro Championship Motorcycle Hill Climb at the Billings Motorcycle Club this year. Cardwell won the overall championship.

BILLINGS — Things sure seem different.

Our sports heroes are on forced hiatus.

Traffic around Billings seems to be a little lighter.

Businesses are shut down and Main Street just doesn’t seem like Main Street.

Social distancing, and mandated changes in the way we do business, is a way of life due to the coronavirus pandemic affecting the worldwide community.

Readers of The Gazette are learning about cancellations or postponements every time they open the sports pages, visit our website, or check out 406mtsports.com.

To be honest, it’s tiring writing about cancellations.

However, I know sooner or later — sooner I hope — things will change and we’ll get back to a regular way of life.

In terms of sports, I’ve been able to keep a positive perspective, and in turn other things are more easily forgotten. How do I do that? That’s easy, I start to recall all of the neat individuals, excellent teams, compelling contests and great sports stories I’ve come across in the past year.

From witnessing young Heights National Little Leaguers living their dreams on the baseball diamond in preparation for the 11-12 Majors Northwest Regional, to the famed Bentonite Nightmare in the South Hills where daring motorcycle hill climbers attempted to crest the 500-foot hill, the past 12 months have been full of highlights.

One of the incredible moments in the local sports world was when Austin Cardwell captured the overall Great American Championship Pro Motorcycle Hill Climb title at the Billings Motorcycle Club last July.

It was the Billings rider’s second career Great American title. But, more than the victory the compelling part of the story was that Cardwell was inspired to win the championship for his father, Tom Cardwell, who was battling leukemia.

Tom, who lives in Billings, was at the hill climb cheering on his son as he raced to the title at the “oldest, largest and richest hill climb in the nation.”

After winning the event late on that July Saturday night, Cardwell found his father.

After the competition ended, they shared a moment.

“He was just super proud of me and gave me a big hug,” Austin told 406mtsports.com the following day. “We were both in tears and both told each other we loved each other. He was super proud of me and knew I could do it. I was super proud he is still around. After everything we’ve been through to pull the championship off is unreal.”

Last year, the Heights National Little League 11-12 Majors All-Stars team experienced a dream summer and won the state championship.

The team qualified for the Northwest Regional in San Bernardino, California.

While interviewing players and coaches during and after a practice before the team departed, there was a serious, but fun mood. Players and coaches were smiling, and the coaches offered words of encouragement. The players were wide-eyed in anticipation of the trip. Grandparents waited with ice cream to treat the team after practice.

But, the best part about the experience was that although a good team and hopeful of a doing well at the regional, expectations were to do their best and enjoy the moment, a perfect message for youth sports.

“It’s 11- and 12-year-olds playing baseball,” manager DJ Smith said. “They can be the worst of the worst or the best of the best in 20 minutes.”

There were other memorable events. One was when for the first time in program history the Rocky Mountain College Battlin’ Bears advanced to the final event site of the NAIA Women’s Soccer National Championships.

Another came in November, at the inaugural “Pack the House Elementary Day,” when more than 500 students in grades three through five filled the stands and cheered as the Montana State Billings women’s basketball team downed Corban University (Oregon) 75-49.

More recently the state wrestling tournament at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark was held. It’s annually one of the many highlights on the local calendar.

Over the course of two action-packed days, the combined 15,000 fans in attendance were treated to a dominant team performance by the Sidney Eagles, a fourth state championship by Bozeman’s Leif Schroeder and a brawl between eventual champion Glasgow and Huntley Project for the Class B championship.

All in all, it’s been an inspirational, feel-good sports year.

Things will get back to normal.

Our sports heroes will be back on the field, court, track or baseball diamond.

We’ll be complaining about traffic, and Main Street will seem like Main Street again. 

Instead of social distancing, we’ll be packing into bleachers and readers of The Gazette and 406mtsports.com will once again be checking to see how their favorite teams did.

Hopefully sometime this spring or early summer any news of a canceled game will be because of rain.

I can’t wait.

There are many more neat individuals to meet, excellent teams to cover, compelling contests to entertain us, and great sports stories to tell.

Email Gazette Deputy Sports Editor John Letasky at john.letasky@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJohnL


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