Montana celebrates their first ever Big Sky softball championship (Photo courtesy: Big Sky TV).

STORY BY MONTANA SPORTS INFORMATION

OGDEN, UT – The Montana softball program may be under new leadership, which tends to lead to some indecision in matters such as this, but the league’s coaches probably couldn’t get past those 11 seniors and a team wearing still-dazzling Big Sky Conference championship rings.

The Grizzlies, who finished second to Weber State last season by a game but won the postseason tournament on the Wildcats’ home field, were picked first in the Big Sky preseason poll that was released on Thursday, collecting five of eight first-place votes.

Weber State picked up the other three votes and came in second in the poll. Sacramento State was third. The Grizzlies get both the Wildcats and Hornets in Missoula for three-game home series this spring.

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“It’s an honor to be picked first, but this will be new for us,” said first-year coach Melanie Meuchel, who was an assistant under Jamie Pinkerton the last three seasons.

“What got us here was trying to prove to everybody that we belong, and that can’t change. Whether you’re picked first or eighth, you still have to go out, day in and day out, and prove it.”

Montana was picked seventh in the 2015 poll, the Grizzlies’ first year of softball, fourth in 2016 and third last season.

“I would rather be the underdog, honestly,” said senior centerfielder MaKenna McGill, one of the team’s four seniors who started Montana’s first game in program history three Februarys ago.

“Last year we were pretty excited when we were picked third, because nobody expected anything from us. We’ve earned this, but we still have to prove ourselves and work hard.

“When you’re ahead, you might think you don’t have to work as hard, but that’s not the case, and hopefully we don’t take it that way. I don’t think we will.”

Montana and Weber State developed the Big Sky’s top rivalry last year, and this season should be no different.

Each team lost a first-team All-Big Sky performer — for Montana it was third baseman Bethany Olea, for Weber State it was first baseman Sara Hingsberger — but both return rosters stacked with talent and experience.

Montana has sophomore starting pitcher Michaela Hood, first-team All-Big Sky last spring and MVP of the league tournament, plus senior shortstop Delene Colburn, voted third-team NFCA All-Pacific Region as a junior.

Weber State counters with senior starting pitcher Kirtlyn Bohling, last season’s other first-team All-Big Sky pitcher, and sophomore outfielder Takesha Saltern, the reigning Big Sky Freshman of the Year.

Sacramento State was third in the poll, followed by Idaho State. North Dakota and Southern Utah tied for fifth, Northern Colorado and Portland State tied for seventh.

Montana opens its season next Thursday with an evening doubleheader at Grand Canyon, itself picked to win the WAC this spring.

The Grizzlies will get an early-season, nonconference look at Weber State on the final day of the Lopes’ tournament, facing the Wildcats on Saturday, Feb. 10, but that won’t even be the highlight of the day.

That will come shortly after that game’s final out, when Montana takes a shot at Oklahoma, the two-time defending national champion. The Sooners were picked No. 1 in both national preseason polls this week.

Montana will play four other road tournaments before opening at home against Providence on Tuesday, March 13.

The Grizzlies begin league with consecutive road trips, to Idaho State and North Dakota, before hosting Weber State the first weekend of April.

Montana closes the regular season with a home series against Sacramento State the first weekend of May. The top six teams in the Big Sky standings will advance to the league tournament, hosted May 10-12 by Weber State.

2018 Big Sky Conference preseason softball poll

1. Montana (5 first-place votes) … 47 points
2. Weber State (3) … 45
3. Sacramento State … 37
4. Idaho State … 27
T5. North Dakota … 24
T5. Southern Utah … 24
T7. Northern Colorado … 10
T7. Portland State … 10

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