(EDITOR’S NOTE: UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA RELEASE)
MISSOULA – The storyline is as old as the Montana softball program, and that makes total sense given Delene Colburn is as good as she is and was one of the first six players to sign with the Grizzlies, back in November 2013.
Montana is just better when Colburn, who was named the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week on Monday for the second time this season and fifth time in her career, is rolling, which seems to be more often than not.
But even Superman has some Clark Kent time, when he’s unable to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
During Montana’s recent five-game losing streak, which started with a 0-3 trip to North Dakota, then got extended two more games with home losses to Weber State, Colburn had just one hit in 13 at-bats, with one run scored and one run driven in.
Montana was shut out in three of those five games and held to a single run in another.
The lesson learned (again): the Grizzlies need Colburn to be at or near her best. When she is in a rare slump, it’s not just the production that’s lost. It’s a transfer of need, from Colburn to everyone else. And it’s a heavy load.
“If Delene is struggling at the plate, it adds a pressure that someone else has to step up if we’re going to be successful, and that can be tough,” said coach Melanie Meuchel, who was hired as the program’s first assistant coach just two months before Colburn signed her National Letter of Intent.
“She tried not to let it affect her. She always plays the game hard, whether she’s on offense or defense, but you’re just kind of waiting for that time when she breaks out.”
April 7 was a good time for it to happen. Montana trailed Weber State 3-2 going into the bottom of the fourth. The Grizzlies had lost five straight, and rain was approaching rapidly, giving the middle innings added meaning with the possibility of a rain-shortened outcome.
With two outs and the tying run at third base, Colburn lined a first-pitch single to right-center, the type of hit in the type of game-on-the-line situation that suggested maybe, just maybe, Colburn was back.
“Del had some hard-hit outs (during our losing streak), but when you’re never on base, it just doesn’t feel like you’re helping your team,” said Meuchel.
The photo of Colburn reaching first base was one of joy and relief, like a burden had been taken away from her in that moment.
She scored what would be the game-winning run in Montana’s 5-3 victory one pitch later, able to take a leisurely jog to home plate after Ashlyn Lyons deposited the ball over the fence in right-center.
Colburn brought whatever it was she found that afternoon to last weekend’s three-game series at Southern Utah, won in a sweep by Montana to up its winning streak to four games and move within a game of first in the Big Sky standings.
Colburn batted .455 in the series, driving in five, scoring twice and hitting her first home run since March 17.
“Any one player shouldn’t have to be on all the time, but when you’re good and can do some things, everyone is always watching,” said Meuchel.
“She went through a streak when she got outside of herself, when she was trying so hard to be a good teammate and produce for her team. She really settled back into who she is and looked great this last weekend.”
In the series opener, a 4-1 Montana victory, Colburn had an RBI single in the seventh as the Grizzlies scored three times to pull away.
Colburn went 3 for 4, with three RBIs and two runs scored in the second game of Friday’s doubleheader, a 5-3 victory. Colburn’s solo home run to lead off the third tied the game at 1-1, and her two-run single in the sixth helped Montana increase its lead to three.
In Saturday’s finale, Montana trailed 3-2 going into the top of the seventh. The Grizzlies’ No. 8 batter, Alex Wardlow, drew a leadoff walk, and Gabby Martinez gave her team two on with nobody out with a bunt single to bring up the top of the order.
Meuchel had MaKenna McGill sacrifice the runners to second and third, which brought up Colburn with first base open and one out.
An intentional walk was certainly a possible move in that situation, to just remove Colburn’s bat from the equation, but the Thunderbirds opted to take their chances, a decision they are probably still regretting today.
Colburn ripped one so hard to center that only one runner was able to score on the play, but it tied the score and put runners on the corners for Lyons, possessor of her own red-hot bat.
Lyons doubled down the left-field line, her second extra-base hit of the game, to drive in the winning run.
Martinez batted .500 in the series at Southern Utah, and Lyons has had multiple hits in four of the last five games, but Colburn is still the engine, the catalyst, same as it’s ever been