Montana softball: The 742nd thing on Coach Pinkerton’s to-do list

Montana softball coach Jamie Pinkerton is the 2017 Big Sky Conference coach of the year. (GoGriz.com)

By GoGriz.com

In the joyous time between his team winning the Big Sky Conference tournament on Saturday afternoon, watching the NCAA selection show on Sunday evening and departing for Seattle on Wednesday morning, Montana softball coach Jamie Pinkerton had 741 things on his to-do list.

Taking 20 minutes out of his day for an interview before practice at Grizzly Softball Field on Tuesday wasn’t one of them, but he sat down in the home dugout and did it anyway. He probably welcomed the break.

Make it 742 things he accomplished in just a few days’ time as he prepares his team to face No. 6 Washington on Friday night in an opening-round game of the NCAA Division I Softball Championship.

Q: Your team played Washington in September in Missoula in a 10-inning exhibition game, which the Huskies won 8-7. How does that experience benefit the team as it prepares to play the Huskies on Friday night in Seattle?

JP: Even though it was an exhibition game, playing against them familiarized us with their players and I think it built some confidence. Obviously it’s going to be different being on the road and playing in the postseason. At this point, I think we’re better than we were in the fall, and I know they’re better.

From a familiarity standpoint, it was huge. It gave us an opportunity to know they have great pitching and that they play great defense. We were able to see them live instead of seeing them on a sheet of paper.

Q: What are the keys to success on Friday?

JP: Mentally we have to stay in the moment and not get overwhelmed. It can be easy to get taken aback by the enormity of it all. It is going to be a different setting, under the lights and with TV cameras, so it will be different than what we’re used to, but I think that can be a good thing.

We’re happy to be there, but I don’t want us to approach it like we’re just happy to be there. We’re there to compete. I want us to play free and easy, and not get overwhelmed by everything.

Q: You went to the NCAA tournament twice with Arkansas, in 2008 and ’09. How will that experience help you as you prepare your team for what’s ahead this week?

JP: I think it will help in our preparation, because I’ll be able to tell them what’s going to happen. There is going to be more media, there is going to be TV, practice times are more structured. The stands are going to be a little more full, and there are going to be lights and cameras around.

There are going to be time demands we normally don’t have during the regular season, so there are going to be some routines we may not be able to keep. But mostly I want to stress to them that it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Q: You’re in the Seattle Regional with Washington, Michigan and Fresno State. Those programs have been to the NCAA tournament 89 times between them, and all have won a national championship.

You’re going there with a third-year program making its first appearance. What do you want to take away from the experience?

JP: You sit and look at these programs and think, we can be that type of program in the Big Sky. That’s what we’re building toward. That’s what we aspire to be, to make appearances like those schools. This team is laying the foundation for that. That would be my goal in my career here.

I would embrace our softball program being like our football program. Being feared and not really liked, but being respected.

A lot of things I heard at the tournament from representatives of other teams is that they don’t like to play Montana but they respect us and think we’re classy. That’s the best compliment you can get in athletics. I don’t ever want to get in a situation where we’re disliked and not classy.

Q: You coached at Tulsa, which is your alma mater, from 2001 to 2004, then at Arkansas from 2005 to 2009. Those two programs meet in an opening-round tournament game this week at Norman, Okla. Who will you be cheering for?

JP: Tulsa. I’ve got to stick to my alma mater and the people who gave me my first opportunity. I love both schools, but I have to go with the Golden Hurricane.

Q: Weber State had been 35-4 at home since the start of the 2015 season before your series in Ogden to close out the regular season. You won that series by taking two of three games, then you beat the Wildcats twice on their home field last week at the tournament. How did you do it?

JP: A very good team played a very good team, and we were able to win four out of five. It was two hot teams, and we were just a little hotter. I was happy with the way we played.

If you would have told me before the season that we would go to Weber on back-to-back weekends and win four out of five, but not tell me the order those wins came, I would have cashed that check.

We had good pitching. We played defense when we had to. And offensively we came up with the key hits when we needed them. If we had come up with a few more key hits the Saturday before, we could have been the conference champs and tournament champs.

Q: Two weekends ago you left Ogden to return to Missoula on a bus after having lost an extra-innings game that decided the Big Sky regular-season championship. One week later you made the same trip after having won the tournament title. What were those trips like?

JP: Obviously the second trip was a lot more fun. The kids were happier and talking more. The first trip was really quiet, downtrodden, but they started getting over it toward the end.

On Saturday the bus had more energy, but they also went to sleep quicker. I think it was because they poured so much of themselves into the previous two weeks, plus they had finals. I think they were just exhausted, but it was a happy bus ride.

Q: When you were hired in August 2013, you had a plan for this program for year one, then up to year five and beyond. Where in the big picture was the step that this team took this season?

JP: I had a vision of what the first year would be like and what the third year would be like. This is our third year, and this wasn’t in my vision. I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said it was.

I wanted us to have some of success, but to sit here and tell you I thought we’d be 13 games over .500 and about to play Washington might have been a little unrealistic.

I had this in my vision, but not until after building our first team, then balancing the classes out and having some depth. So I guess I would have hoped this would happen in year five or six. Everything has kind of been fast-tracked, and we’ll embrace it. I’m happy it’s here.

Q: Last year your team closed the season winning 16 of its last 20 games. This season you’re 25-7 since mid-March. What do you attribute that to?

JP: Early in the season you’re playing four or five games in a weekend, and it’s a wide spectrum of teams. I try to give the players the information they need on those teams, but I don’t want to give them so much information that I’m forcing them to drink from a fire hose.

When you get into conference and we can focus in on one opponent instead of five, it helps us as a staff as we prepare the team.

I think our weather is part of it. We’re able to get into a rhythm when we’re able to get consistent practices on our field. Plus we travel so much early in the season that we don’t get the number of practices we do later in the season.

And I think the way we schedule helps. Playing the Oregons, the Utahs, the Texas Techs, it helps prepare us for getting into conference play, because you’ve got to be at the top of your game to play with those teams.

And when you get into conference play, there is a lot more on the line. They know the postseason is on the line, the tournament is on the line, so it gets them more focused.

Q: You’ve built an NCAA tournament team in just three years, but you still talk about the growing pains you expect the program to go through. What do you mean by that?

JP: There will be a day when (this year’s 11-player junior class is) walking out of here. There is going to be a vacuum, so that’s what we’re trying to prepare for. But we knew all along it was going to happen. That’s our next big obstacle to overcome.

If a football team with a 60- or 80-man roster loses 22 or 23 players, that’s huge to them. We’re going to lose 11 players out of 20. Next year we’ll have a roster of 23, but that’s still going to be a huge hole. We’re going to lose half our team after next year. That’s where I think there will be some growing pains.

We could have gone with more junior-college players that first year in an attempt to balance out the classes right from the start, but I don’t think the foundation would be as stable as it is now.

Q: You took over a Tulsa team and built it into a program that’s had lasting success ever since. Then you went to Arkansas and turned that into an NCAA tournament team within four years. How does this experience compare?

JP: It’s different, because I started here with my own players, and that’s key. I loved the kids who played for me at Tulsa and Arkansas, but you come into an established program, and you have to have buy-in, so it was a little more difficult.

This hasn’t been easy, building a program and a field, and getting to know a whole other area than I was used to, but this has been more fun. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun at Tulsa and Arkansas, but to be able to start something, there has been a little more satisfaction.

I wouldn’t trade my experience at either one of those schools, but it’s totally different when you inherit someone else’s players and have to create a new culture. Things have been done a certain way, then you come in and change it, and a lot of players don’t like it.

Here, we were able to lay it out from day one that this is how we’re going to do it. The kids bought into it and just knew that’s the way it is.

Q: Twenty years from now, how do you think you’ll remember this team and this experience?

JP: There is a bond with this team. I’ll always remember the bond and the fun of building it. They’re good kids and a fun bunch to be around.

What really makes me happy and almost brings me to tears is that most of the team that played that first year (in 2015) gets to experience a championship. A lot of times that doesn’t happen.

Usually it’s another group of kids who use the foundation that the original team set. That’s what’s really cool about it, that the first group of kids gets to experience this. They get to enjoy this. That’s what I’ll take away and remember about this.

Q: When this program played its first season in 2015, it had a buzz around it. And it hasn’t let up, even through year three. Has that exceeded the expectations you had when you were hired?

JP: It has exceeded it by miles. At first I thought maybe we were a novelty. We were the new sport, and everybody loves a new sport. In the second and third year it really didn’t drop off.

I’m really careful about saying we have the best fans. I’ve worded it this way before, and I can word it this way again. I feel these are the best fans I’ve been associated with.

Early on at Tulsa, we didn’t have a field and we didn’t draw. At Arkansas, if we got two or three hundred, that was a big crowd. Back when I was (an assistant coach at Virginia), we’d be lucky if it was some parents and maybe 15 other people. There were a lot of attendance figures that said 75.

Here, they show up every day, every game. I would have never thought it. I’m grateful and I don’t ever want to take it for granted or have anyone feel like it’s not appreciated.

And since we’ve gotten it, I think (assistant coach Melanie Meuchel) and the players have done a good job of cultivating it, by going out and thanking the fans after our games and our meet-the-team dinner. We definitely want to keep what we have going.

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