One year after meeting on the final day of the regular season for a winner-take-all game in Missoula, with the victor claiming the Big Sky Conference championship and earning the right to host the league tournament, the Montana and Weber State softball teams will do it again, this time in Ogden.
The Grizzlies made it so with a sweep of the Wildcats on Friday, rallying for three runs in the top of the seventh in the opener for a dramatic 4-3 win, then using a five-run first in game two to roll to a 9-2 win. The teams will meet at noon on Saturday.
“As Yogi Berra once said, It’s déjà vu all over again,” said UM coach Jamie Pinkerton after his team won for the 24th time in its last 31 games.
By losing at home on Sunday to Idaho State, the Grizzlies made this week’s road trip as difficult as possible. To win a title, they would need a sweep against a team that had won its last 17 games at home against league opponents and hadn’t lost three in a series at home in more than three years.
“I thought after Sunday we would be a little down, but they were ready to get back to work,” Pinkerton said. “I liked their approach all week, and I was really happy with our practice and our approach here on Thursday. It was loose, but it was also, All right, it’s time to get down to business.”
There were plenty of ominous signs in the opener that it wasn’t to be.
Freshman starter Michaela Hood gave up runs in both the first and second innings, Weber State’s second run coming after Montana didn’t score after loading the bases with nobody out in the top of the second.
In the fifth, in a 2-1 game, Delene Colburn, whose solo shot leading off the top of the second got Montana on the scoreboard, came up with a pair of runners on and two outs but flied out to left.
“Anytime an opportunity presents itself, you need to take advantage of it, especially in a game like this,” said Pinkerton. “We had three straight at-bats with the bases loaded in the second, and we didn’t take the lead, then they answer back with a run.
“I thought that’s when the kids really dug their heels in and played really good softball from there on out.”
Hood gave up a run in the first on an RBI groundout, another in the second on an infield single. She would only give up one more over the final five innings, a two-out RBI single in the fifth.
“(Pitching coach Melanie Meuchel) prepped her all week that there would be a lot of pressure but that she could handle it,” said Pinkerton. “She gave up the runs in the first and second, and then kind of settled in and did a really nice job.”
But her offense wasn’t backing her up. Until the seventh.
After Anne Mari Petrino grounded out to open the inning, putting the Wildcats two outs away from clinching the title, Gabby Martinez singled to center and Ashlyn Lyons drew a walk, ending the day for Weber State starter Kirtlyn Bohling.
She was replaced by 13-game-winner Tatiana Su’esu’e, who mishandled a ball by the first batter she faced, Bethany Olea, allowing Montana to load the bases with one out for Colburn.
Colburn drew a five-pitch walk to make it 3-2, and Sydney Stites, who still has some magic in her bat despite hitting .250 entering the series, tied it with a single to center, giving last year’s Big Sky Freshman of the Year her first three-hit game since late March, her third of the season.
Madison Saacke grounded out to third for the second out, but it was into the 5-6 hole, allowing Olea to score what would be the game-winning run.
“When the opportunity presented itself, we were able to keep the line moving and come through,” said Pinkerton, whose team won despite going 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position. Stites’s big hit was it.
Given a lead for the first time, Hood put the Wildcats down in order in the bottom of the seventh for her 15th win of the year, a new program record.
Step one of three was complete, and the way it ended may have carried over to the second game.
Weber State, one of the Big Sky’s top defensive teams, had errors, all in the infield, on three of the first five batters Montana sent to the plate. The Grizzlies would score five runs on just three hits, all five runs unearned.
“When you suffer a loss in game one, as a coach I try to tell the kids to pick up a handful of dirt and throw it away. That game’s done. You can’t do anything about it,” said Pinkerton.
“I don’t know their team, but they made a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes they don’t usually make, and we jumped on it.”
It was the perfect situation for game-two starter Colleen Driscoll, who doesn’t strike out a lot of batters nor walk many. She throws hittable pitches but not too hittable. She has just 30 strikeouts in 80 innings of work this season, with only 12 walks, but teams are still only hitting .293 against her.
“Getting a lead like that gave Colleen a chance to go out and pound the strike zone,” said Pinkerton. “She pitches to contact. She doesn’t dance around the zone, and she didn’t today.”
She gave up one run in the fourth, another in the sixth, and after 79 pitches she was done. Maddy Stensby pitched a scoreless seventh.
“Typical Colleen. After the sixth she came off and said she wanted to finish it but that it was time to hand it off to someone else,” said Pinkerton. “Every pitcher wants a complete game, and I know she wanted one. She is such an unselfish player.”
Saacke, who had three hits and drove in four in two games, had an RBI single in the first, then a two-out single in the fourth that scored two more as Montana built its advantage to 8-0.
It was Weber State’s worst home loss to a league opponent in more than three years, but for Montana it was only step two of three. Saturday’s result is the one people will remember.
“They were excited they won two games, but there was a sense of, We’re not finished,” said Pinkerton. “That’s the sign of a mature team, so I like where we’re at.
“I think they had fun today. They went out and played free and easy. But if we want it, we’re still going to have to go out and take it. Weber State is a class ball club, and they’re good, so we still have a lot of work to do.”