Bozeman Bucks Photo

Bucks' Preston Fliehman connects with the ball during a game against Helena in the Class AA state tournament at Dehler Park in Billings on Friday.

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Preston Fliehman fouled off a pitch. Then another. With two balls, two strikes and two runners on base, Fliehman represented the winning run.

In the bottom of the seventh, with one swing, Bozeman could have eliminated the Billings Scarlets. Instead, Fliehman’s second foul ball flew into the air, fell back down and landed in catcher Jarron Wilcox’s mitt.

Wilcox punched the air with his non-glove hand. The Scarlets extended their season by a day. The Bucks’ last-gasp rally attempt fell short and they suffered their first loss of the tournament, 5-3. They’ll only have one chance to win the state title Sunday.

“We just never generated momentum,” Bozeman manager Garrett Schultz said. “Give credit to the Scarlets because they played really well.”

After leading the conference in runs this season, the Bucks’ bats went quiet Saturday in Billings. Hitters combined to go 7 for 29 without an extra-base hit. That placed extra emphasis on starting pitcher Brady Higgs, who allowed five runs on eight hits in 6 1/3 innings. Though Higgs kept Bozeman in the game until the end, the scoring drought made the difference.

Despite the outcome, the top-seeded Bucks (47-13) still have a shot at winning the Class AA state title Sunday. The No. 4-seeded Scarlets and second-seeded Helena Senators will meet at noon, and the victor will face Bozeman in the winner-take-all championship shortly after.

“We feel we’re in a really good position,” Schultz said. “Those two teams have to battle each other before they play us. We’re going to take advantage of that.”

The Bucks entered the seventh inning Saturday down 5-1 and trimmed the deficit when Ethan Coleman and Kelher Murfitt scored. Even before the comeback bid, Bozeman had its chances.

In the second inning, Logan Pailthorpe was thrown out at home after a wild pitch, and an Ethan Faure groundout immediately after would have scored another run except it became the third out of the inning.

In the bottom of the fifth, Sage McMinn crushed a towering shot that flew above the right-field foul pole and the 350-feet sign, but the would-be two-run homer was ruled foul.

McMinn eventually walked, and Alton Gyselman followed him by ripping a line drive to right field that likely would have scored a run or two, but the defender made an acrobatic, on-the-run diving catch.

“If we catch a break on one of those plays there, I think it’s a different ball game,” Schultz said.

The Scarlets’ Bradley Wagner went 6 2/3 innings, allowing just two earned runs. Sixty-three of his 104 pitches went for strikes. He and the Billings defense limited the damage the Bucks could do. After relying on its explosive offense in the regular season — averaging 8.4 runs per game — it cooled off Saturday.

“Offensively, we were good at times and then not real balanced in the box in some at-bats,” Schultz said. “You got to give credit to their pitcher, Wagner. I thought he was very good tonight.”

Following the loss, Bozeman’s attention quickly shifted to the single-game championship. The Bucks have the luxury of watching Helena and Billings face each other for a chance to play in the season’s final game.

Since ace Hunter Williams threw 59 pitches in the tournament opener Thursday, he’s eligible to return Sunday. He went 9-0 in the regular season, recording a 2.11 ERA and striking out 92 batters in 66 1/3 innings pitched.

“We know (Williams) is going to give us a chance to go out and win,” Schultz said.

With just one final day left in the season, Schultz said his team planned to rest up before Sunday afternoon. After winning last year’s state title and going 21-3 in conference play during this year’s regular season, Bozeman already has a blueprint for success.

“We’re just going to relax. We’re not going to change anything,” Schultz said. “We’re going to try and go wear them out.”

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.