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Montana Grizzlies softball honors seniors who started the program

Posted at 2:52 PM, May 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 15:46:10-04

(Editor’s note: Story by Montana Sports Information)

MISSOULA – Even Disney, peddler of the feel-good sports movie, would have been skeptical of the script. That’s how far-fetched the idea was.

Ashlyn Lyons would have understood all the doubts. She was there, in Las Cruces, N.M., the first Thursday of February in 2015. That was her, jogging out to first base when the Montana softball team took the field for the first time, 213 games ago.

They thought they knew what was about to happen. They had no idea.

Playing as the home team against New Mexico State, the Grizzlies made their debut by giving up a walk to the first batter they ever faced. Then a stolen base, then a home run, then a home run, then a single. Then they hit a batter. And that was all before the program had recorded its first out.

There would be another home run before the inning was over, and Montana left the field to bat for the first time already trailing 5-0.

“It was a shock. We thought we knew what we were getting into, but we had no idea,” says Lyons, one of seven freshman starters that day and one of 15 freshmen on that season’s roster of 20.

“It gave us an idea of where we needed to be and how much work it was going to take to get there, but at the time we weren’t comfortable on the field. We didn’t have any experience. We didn’t know ourselves.”

So they got to work, and 118 weeks and two days later, knowing themselves in full, they stood — or more accurately: danced — on a field in Ogden, Utah, as champions. And even Disney looked on in disbelief.

Less than a year after that first Big Sky Conference championship, 10 of those original 15 freshmen, plus another who transferred into the program after that inaugural campaign, will be playing their final home game as seniors when Montana hosts Sacramento State on Saturday at 1 p.m.

In one sense, given all the program has accomplished in the interim, what would turn out to be an 8-0 loss to New Mexico State in that opener feels like it occurred a lifetime ago. In another, and this applies even more so to the departing seniors, it feels like it happened just last month.

But time rolls by quickly when your head is down in pursuit of a goal. The end can sneak up on you before you’re quite expecting or ready for it.

“We’ve come such a long way, which makes me think it’s been a long time,” says Lyons. “But other than that, it feels like yesterday. It’s crazy how fast it’s gone.”

It’s the story of a coach and his vision, a man known as a re-builder of broken programs who could finally drop the re- and just create something from the ground up, no fixing or repairs needed, from purchasing the first bats and balls to establishing the first beliefs by which the program would operate.

And it’s the story of players, some of whom were sold on the idea of being part something new, others not having any other options if they wanted to play Division I softball. A program arriving late on the recruiting scene matching up with players, many overlooked, who just wanted a chance.

And it’s the story of Montana itself, more the state than the school, which had been waiting for this for years, tired as it was of sending its best players across state lines to distant programs when all the backing the Grizzlies would ever need was sitting right there, latent, waiting.

But more than anything it’s the story of firsts. The first coach. His first assistant. Their first verbal commitment. The first wave of National Letters of Intent to arrive. The team’s first meeting, its first practice, its first road trip and game, its first season.

And now their long adventure, filled with highs and lows, then more highs and lows, is nearing the finish line. Montana’s first four-year class to enter as freshmen and depart as seniors has come within sight of the end.

“It was a leap of faith, but I’m so glad I took a chance,” says Tori Lettus, of Bothell, Wash., the first player to commit to new coach Jamie Pinkerton, who arrived after working as an assistant coach at Iowa State, a position that followed head jobs at Tulsa and Arkansas.

“He had a vision, and it sounded wonderful. People asked me why I did it. I had connections to Montana and it was an opportunity to live out my dream of playing collegiate softball, so it seemed like a perfect fit. I knew it involved a lot of unknowns. What I didn’t expect was for it to be as special as it’s been.”

Lettus is part of what will forever be known in program lore as the Original Six, those half dozen players whose NLIs arrived in November 2013, 15 months before the team would take the field for the first time.

Delene Colburn, from Auburn, Wash., was in that group, a player who will never again, at least in softball circles, have her given name misspoken as da-LENE, as it was so often early on, before DEL-ah-nee became a household name.

Even a decade or more from now, when class after class has come and gone, Colburn will be on the program’s Mt. Rushmore, the four faces that have defined the program, a monument that will remain vividly in our imaginations until approval is granted to start carving up Mt. Sentinel.

“The first time I saw Delene play, I knew that I wanted her on this team,” Pinkerton said nearly four and a half years ago, at the time of her signing, then added, “In time I believe she’ll have the ability to hit five to 10 home runs a year.”

She enters Montana’s final home weekend with a career average of .372, with 246 hits, 45 home runs and 197 RBIs, and a fan base that extends to anyone who’s ever seen her play even a single inning, such is her joie de softball.

The NLIs for Lyons and Lettus arrived that week, as did those for Gabby Martinez, MaKenna McGill and Carli Riordan. Five of those six players — Riordan, a pitcher, departed after one year — will be in uniform on Saturday. Each of them earned some level of Big Sky Conference recognition during their careers.

That Pinkerton and then assistant coach Melanie Meuchel batted as well as they did on that initial group — 5 for 6, with bonus points for Colburn’s all-region selection last season — only sped up the process. Not totally knowing what they were getting in those first players, the coaches had set everything in motion.

Lyons has been a mainstay at first and is enjoying a career season this spring, batting .353 with six home runs. McGill has been one of the Big Sky’s top center fielders from the day she stepped foot on campus, and Martinez has made a career of proving wrong the doubters, who see 4-foot-11 and think, no way.

“Looking at our first group in 2013 and looking at today, I don’t know if you could really have hoped to have the success they’ve had, for as quickly as we put it together,” says Pinkerton, whose Iowa State team needs one win this weekend at Kansas to make the Big 12 tournament in his first season in Ames.

“You couldn’t have projected it with as late a start as we got on recruiting. We were at a point when we needed to fill a roster. We maybe got a little lucky with the quality of individuals they turned out to be. They turned out to be pretty good character kids, with good integrity and good work ethic.”

The next wave signed the following April, with Dani Walker becoming the first player from Montana to sign with the Grizzlies. Lexie Brenneis joined from British Columbia, Mackenzie Kutzke, McKenzie Phillips and Madison Saacke from California.

The second group of freshmen was more mixed in its results and experiences. Kutzke lasted one season, Brenneis returned to Canada after two and remains the program’s biggest what-if, even nearly two years later.

She batted .400 in 2015 to earn Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors, .397 as a sophomore, with 19 extra-base hits, good enough to be voted unanimous first-team all-league.

Then she gave up her future spot alongside Colburn, never to be memorialized in stone. That summer she let Pinkerton know she wasn’t coming back. The draw of home was too much. And the program, all rainbows to that point, had suffered its first real-world setback.

Montanans Mercedes Bourgeau, Katie Jo Waletzko and Nikki Schurg were on the roster when the Grizzlies practiced for the first time in the fall of 2014, the day after Labor Day, on Sentinel High School’s field, as was Alex Wardlow, another player out of California.

It would be their fall home, but it was only temporary. Just a few blocks to the east, on an open patch of UM’s South Campus, work was being done on what would become an emerald gem, the all-synthetic Grizzly Softball Field. And what a home (and home-field advantage) it would become.

Weeks later: an inauspicious start for the program. The Grizzlies lost to Dawson Community College in Billings in their first-ever exhibition game. Not even Hollywood was buying that the program might be facing Washington two seasons later in the NCAA tournament. Too improbable, even for the movies.

Then, the next weekend, a scene that was beyond encouraging. It was downright shocking, in the best sense of the word, as an estimated 700 fans flocked to Frenchtown High School to see Montana play its first semi-home games, an 11-1 win over North Idaho and 6-4 victory over Carroll.

Interest in the program, felt for years after the announcement that the Grizzlies were coming but never really quantifiable, could finally be seen and heard, and it’s continued. It simply moved down the interstate to Missoula, shifting from Frenchtown to South Campus.

After a 7-1 fall exhibition season — finally some wins, finally the feeling that the team might be able to play at the Division I level — the first game arrived that February evening, against New Mexico State on the Aggies’ home field. Insert: the sound of air rushing out of a balloon.

“As a coach you never want to go into a game thinking you’re going to struggle,” says Pinkerton, who would be voted the Big Sky Coach of the Year in both 2016 and ’17. “I had the expectation that we could be competitive, but that first inning … I’ll always remember that. It was part of the growing pains.”

But there were bright spots nonetheless. Bethany Olea, a sophomore who transferred from Arizona Western prior to that first year, doubled in the bottom of the first, the program’s first hit.

Lyons and Colburn led off the second with a single and double. Lyons singled again in the fourth, McGill doing the same in the fifth.

It was a lightweight facing a heavyweight, if just on experience, and the underdog kept fighting.

Montana may have gone 0-5 on its first trip, but after getting shut out in the tournament opener, the Grizzlies scored four or more runs the next four games. The building blocks began to emerge.

The program’s first win would come the following week, at San Diego’s tournament. Facing the host Toreros, Montana put up a six-run fourth, a three-run fifth to win 11-5.

Lettus had two hits and drove in three. McGill scored three times. And maybe there was something there after all. “As things started going, we knew we had something special,” says Pinkerton.

Montana would go 16-34 that first season, 11-5 at home, 8-13 in league and go into the final weekend of the season with a mathematical chance to grab a spot in the Big Sky tournament.

From every angle it was a success. But beyond the wins and losses and the home support that came from nearly 500 fans per game making their way to Grizzly Softball Field, Montana was beginning to define what it wanted to become. It’s the privilege provided to framers.

Pinkerton may have set everyone on the path he wanted the program to take, but the players took their own ownership of the process. As that first season progressed, that journey of discovery, there were starts and stops and resets, all with a never-changing dream vividly in mind.

“We just learned along the way,” says Lettus. “Everything that happened to us, it was either, okay, this is what we want to become or what we don’t want to be like.

“We just kept molding and shaping until we had what Montana is going to be and continue to be when we’re gone. It was a process. What did we want Montana Griz softball to stand for?”

It was after that first season that Montana added the player who will be the 11th senior to be honored on Saturday. In August 2015, Haley Young signed on after pitching one season at Mississippi Valley State.

The Oklahoma native packed up her glove and traveled with an open mind, not completely knowing what she would find when she reached Missoula. It took one day being around her new teammates.

“I found a team that was hungry. I found a team that was young and ready to build together and ready to take the next step by doing whatever they had to do,” says Young.

What happened in 2016 didn’t seem likely after Montana was swept at Idaho State to drop to 4-5 in league. But the Grizzlies responded with a run that put the Big Sky on notice. In just its second season, Montana was getting good. Really good.

The Grizzlies swept Carroll at home, then Portland State. They won two out of three at Southern Utah, including the opener, when they came back from a 12-2 deficit to win 14-13, then swept Great Falls at home and North Dakota on the road. It would eventually become 14 wins in 15 games.

It didn’t seem possible, but the mathematics backed it up. Montana entered the final weekend in its second season with a chance to play itself into a share of the Big Sky title and host the league tournament. All it had to do was sweep Weber State in Missoula.

The Wildcats, the neighborhood bullies of the Big Sky — in results, not in actions — would be the perfect measuring stick. They’d roughed up the Grizzlies the previous season in Ogden, winning three games by a combined score of 19-1.

If Montana had truly arrived, this was the chance to prove it. Yes, that Montana was in the position it was seemed victory enough for that stage of the program’s development, but it wasn’t enough for the Grizzlies. They wanted more. They wanted the brass ring.

Sara Stephenson held the Wildcats to two runs in the opener, a 5-2 Montana victory, and Olea came through with one of the defining hits in program history in the second game of the doubleheader.

With Montana trailing 4-2 in the bottom of the seventh, with two outs and nobody on base, Sydney Stites kept the game going with a double. Brenneis followed with an RBI single, making it 4-3.

After Colburn put two on with an infield single, Olea ripped a double to right-center. One run in. Two runs in. Ball game. The Grizzlies, down to their final out just moments earlier, had pulled it out and set up a winner-take-all Saturday.

Softball as a sport at Montana had mattered from the start. Now the Grizzlies were starting to register, and more and more people were taking notice. And they were evolving before everyone’s eyes into the program that they had set out to become.

“What is it? A lot of pride. For this school and for the support we knew was behind us,” says Lettus. “This isn’t just a sports team and its fans. It’s more like a family.

“Griz softball means pride and hard work, because we built this from the ground up. It’s about striving to keep getting better.”

In front of 758 fans that day, the last of the regular season in 2016, Montana fell 9-7 to the team that would go on to win the Big Sky tournament, the game ending with the potential winning run at the plate for the Grizzlies in the bottom of the seventh. They were close.

All that finish did was set the stage for 2017 and establish Weber State as the team Montana would need to get past — and wanted to go through — to get what it wanted: a championship.

And once again it came down to the final series of the regular season, Montana at Weber State, the Grizzlies needing to once again win all three to win a championship and host the tournament.

A three-run seventh allowed the Grizzlies to rally for a 4-3 victory in the opener. One down, two to go. The second game was less dramatic: Montana 9, Weber State 2. Two down, one to go.

Montana built a 4-0 lead in the series finale and was one strike away from bringing the tournament to Missoula, but a cold-blooded single by Sara Hingsberger in the bottom of the seventh tied the game and sent the teams to extras, where the Wildcats won 6-5 in eight innings.

So close once again, even closer than the year before. But from the heartbreak and disappointment of that moment, something special emerged, the start of a magical two-week journey, one that felt so natural and right in the moment but probably had no right occurring, not to a third-year program.

Montana would return to Ogden the next week and whip Idaho State 8-0 to open the Big Sky tournament.

The Grizzlies used a 10th-inning home run from Stites to beat Weber State 2-1 and laid a nine-hit, seven-run fourth on the Wildcats a day later to defeat them again, the only way, against the only opponent, it truly would have felt earned.

And on that field did the Grizzlies dance.

“We dreamed about it. We talked about it. We kept working for it. It was cool to see it manifest in front of us,” says Lyons. Pinkerton adds, “I was looking at it taking 5-6 years, that this class would be the building blocks, then we’d bring in more kids who would help along the way.

“I always believed that this first bunch was going to put it in the right direction but never enjoy a championship. They got to do both. That’s why I was so thrilled for them last year.”

The celebration continued right into the next week, with a trip to Seattle, for games against Washington and Fresno State in the NCAA tournament. The results were disappointing — two losses, zero runs scored — but it was the next first, this one years ahead of when it realistically should have arrived.

Everything was set up for 2018 to be a seamless continuation of the way 2017 had closed, but when Iowa State came calling for Pinkerton last summer, he had to go. There were family reasons, financial reasons, competitive reasons, security reasons.

But if this year’s seniors should know one thing, it’s this: they gave their former coach pause.

With nearly every sensible part of him telling him he had to go, a part of his heart, independent of the rest of him, held out hope, throwing the smallest of wrenches into his decision-making. That first class of freshmen, the seniors-to-be, had taken hold. They made him hesitate for the briefest moment.

No part of him wanted to leave them, to end the most unique players-coach relationship he’d had in more than two decades of coaching. He wanted to see them through, start to finish, to be with them at Grizzly Softball Field on that final day, to thank along with everyone else the founders of the program.

“They mean a lot to me. Coming off a championship and having 10 seniors who have been in the program from the beginning and having that bond, I’ve never had a bond like that with so many kids at one time,” Pinkerton says.

“They are all special to me and always will be. When I was weighing out the pros and cons, they were definitely part of the thought process.”

Soon — sooner than anyone would want, even if the season were to extend all the way to June and Oklahoma City and the Women’s College World Series — it will come to a close.

Years ago they were a part of so many firsts. Now it’s the lasts that are arriving, the most difficult of them coming this weekend. The last home series. The last home game. The last inning, the last pitch, the final out. One last walk off Grizzly Softball Field in a Montana uniform.

Their final season, their three-month swan song, maybe hasn’t been perfect or gone quite as any of them would have written it. The regular-season Big Sky title eluded them, but the tournament championship will still be up for grabs next week in Ogden.

But their legacy won’t be defined by what happens against Sacramento State this weekend or at the tournament next week or anything that may take place beyond that. It’s so much larger than this brief moment in time.

They can’t see it now, as focused as they are on the short-term, on finishing the season as best they can, but they will over time, after their careers as Grizzlies begin to fade from view, months from now, years from now.

“I think they know they’ve accomplished a lot, but I don’t think they’ll realize the impact they’ve had on the program until they are a couple of years removed and the program continues to have success,” says Pinkerton.

“They’ll be able to look back with a great deal of pride and say, I was on that first team. I was on the first championship team. It was unique and an experience I know I’m never going to forget. I would do it again.”

There can only be one set of founders. It’s a special opportunity but one that comes with great responsibility. A program only has one shot to get it right from the start. Fail and years and years of teams are burdened with picking up the pieces and making things right.

And that will be their legacy, of these seniors, that they got it right. From the start. They’ve set Montana up to have success long after they’ve gone, because what they established was built to last.

It’s what founders, at least the very best of them, do.