(Editor’s Note: Montana Sports Information release)
MISSOULA – It’s not the target of being the Big Sky Conference preseason favorite and taking everyone’s best shot as much as it is the added weight of unrealistic expectations that seems to be holding the Montana softball team down these days.
Not even a return on Friday to Grizzly Softball Field, where Montana had been 5-0 this season and 45-16 since the facility opened, helped ease the burden or lighten the load, as the Grizzlies were swept in a doubleheader by Weber State, 3-0 and 11-5.
“We have high expectations in this program, and I think the players have the feeling that we’re letting people down if we don’t win when all we really have to do is relax and play the game and enjoy the game,” said first-year coach Melanie Meuchel.
Montana was shut out for the third time in four games in the opener, coming up with just three hits in support of Michaela Hood, who threw a complete-game three-hitter in taking the loss.
In the second game, three pitchers gave up 13 hits, the second-most allowed in a game this season, and the Big Sky’s best defensive team committed three errors — as many as the previous nine games combined.
“We’re tight in what we’re doing. We’re trying to be perfect,” said Meuchel. “We know we have a target on our backs, so every game becomes a big game.”
The opener was a matchup that delivered so many epic battles last season, with Kirtlyn Bohling facing Hood. Both were solid, but Bohling was the beneficiary of an opportunistic offense, while Hood hurt her cause with a pair of walks. Both of those runners would come around to score.
With two outs in the top of the second, Sadie Blacker singled up the middle. McKinley Brinkerhoff followed with a walk.
Alli Belloc opened the scoring when she singled to right field. The throw home was late, and Montana tried to pick off Belloc, who was on her way to second. Brinkerhoff took advantage of the extra throw and made it home from third, putting her team up 2-0.
Weber State’s third run came in the seventh. Blackner led off with a walk. Her pinch runner advanced to second on a sacrifice and moved up to third on a wild pitch. Blackner then scored on a sacrifice fly.
Montana’s three hits, all singles, only one of which made it out of the infield, all came in separate innings.
“We didn’t produce the way we needed to at the plate,” said Meuchel. “We weren’t able to tag her for any hits back-to-back, or strike the ball hard, or execute on some of the opportunities we had.”
After four consecutive wins, it was the second straight loss for Hood, a tough-luck one at that. “She was good today,” said Meuchel. “She gave us a chance.”
That Montana had scored a single run in its previous 32 innings, it felt like a mountain of an obstacle to overcome when Weber State exploded for six runs in the top of the third in the second game.
Takesha Saltern had a two-run triple to left-center off starter Colleen Driscoll, and three batters later Molly Horne hit her first home run of the season, a three-run shot over the wall in center to make it 6-0.
Montana’s offense finally showed some signs of life in the bottom of the third, producing four runs on four hits to pull within two.
Ashlyn Lyons had an RBI single, as did Jessica McAlister. Lexi Knauss, getting the start at designated hitter, ripped an RBI double to right-center to make it 6-4.
But the pitching couldn’t hold Weber State down. The Wildcats answered with two in the fourth, one in the fifth, then added two more in the seventh on Sydney White’s first home run of the season.
“Our defense took on a lot more pressure in game two, and by the time our offense started to come around and give us some hope, we didn’t play well defensively,” said Meuchel.
“It’s just a lot of pressure we’re feeling on both sides of the ball, a lot more pressure than we’re needing to put on ourselves.”
The setbacks extend Montana’s losing streak to five and drop the Grizzlies into a tie for sixth in the Big Sky standings, even with Southern Utah at 3-5, one game up on last-place Idaho State.
But a new opportunity awaits on Saturday, when Montana and Weber State meet at 1 p.m. in the series finale. A lot will come out of the result. Will it be more of the same, of struggling to deal with expectations, or will it be the start of something new?
“We have a chance,” said Meuchel. “Anytime we step on the field, we have a chance. We’re going to wake up tomorrow, and it’s going to be a new day. We’re going to be ready to play with a lot of confidence.
“The players work so hard every single day for this program. We just have to stay with it and try to get paid back for the hard work.”