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Column: In Polson, it's not Field 1 anymore

by FRITZ NEIGHBOR
Daily Inter Lake | May 27, 2021 12:00 PM

The last time I’d spoken with Larry Smith, it was 2005 and his Polson softball team was surprisingly bowing out of the State A tournament.

It was his 18th season as Polson’s coach, and the Pirates were not only defending state champions, they had won three of the previous four titles. And they were hosting.

Frenchtown, with pitcher Ashley Block mixing in a deadly new change-up, won five shutouts and the crown. Smith didn’t need to be reminded.

“It was one of those years that we should have won it and didn’t,” he said this week.

The statement implies that Polson plucked a couple titles as underdog; all we know for sure is the Pirates won seven during his 31 seasons as head coach.

On May 18, Smith, 79 and retired for two seasons, went to the Polson softball fields to watch this year’s Pirates play Ronan. It was a bigger-than-usual crowd, with more than the usual number of his former players.

“Once I walked onto the field and one of my older alumni (Suzanne Perez) said, ‘Congratulations,’ and I said, ‘For what?’ — that was the first indication something was going on,” Smith said.

“It hit me pretty heavy. I was pretty emotional.”

Before putting a wallop on Ronan, Polson renamed its Field 1, “Larry Smith Field.” They could have done it for the championships alone, but the complex itself — four fields in all — was pretty much his baby.

When he took over the program in 1998, in its third year under the auspices of the Montana High School Association, there was no field at all.

“We practiced on whatever spot we could find,” Smith said. “Babe Ruth fields. Little League fields. We played games at the Kerr Dam fields — they were baseball fields. There were pitching mounds on them, and 300-foot fences.”

Eventually the Pirates put up temporary snow fences to reduce the dimensions.

“I bought them myself,” said their coach.

In the early 1960s Smith went to MSU-Northern with the intention of being a teacher and coach. After Northern, the Dixon High (go Demons!) grad headed for Flathead Lake.

“Polson was always the jewel of my eye as far as wanting to live in Western Montana,” he said.

One problem: “Back then a teacher’s salary was almost poverty-level,” said Smith. “I got into my own business, and it was pretty successful.”

Smith Paving and Contracting, which began in 1979, no doubt had a hand in the complex that rose up around a potent softball program. Smith has noted that no mill levy or public funds were used. He’s credited Rick Meidinger, father of two Polson softball players, with heading construction. Materials “begged and borrowed” made it all possible; so did volunteer labor.

“They started building it in 1996,” Smith said this week. “We had one field prepared — no dugouts or anything, but we had a field. Grass was in, fences were built.

“Every year we added onto it and by 2000 we had a completed complex.”

State tournaments came to Polson, seven in all. The Pirates won some there (2001-02) and others elsewhere (in Miles City).

Of that 2001 crown, Smith told montanasports.com: “I never saw so many rough, tough fathers with tears in their eyes.”

College prospects like Shay Duford, Strohm Fouty, Ashley Meidinger and his granddaughter, Kaelyn Smith, matriculated through. When Kaelyn landed a scholarship to play for the Montana Grizzlies, it was as good a time as any to hang up the fungo.

A back injury kept her from suiting up, so the college fandom didn’t pan out. But Smith could still watch the Pirates play. And Kaelyn was there on May 18.

Twenty years after that first title, the Pirates’ patriarch was back on the field. His field. The tears were his, too.

photo

Polson High School Athletic Director Don Toth, left, poses with longtime Polson softball coach Larry Smith on May 18 at the Polson Softball Complex. Smith was honored with a ceremony, and the main field will now be known as Larry Smith Field. (Courtesy of Bob Gunderson)