(Editor’s note: story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA – The Montana softball team qualified for the Big Sky Conference tournament and took one of two games against league co-leader Sacramento State on Friday afternoon as its final home series of the season got underway at Grizzly Softball Field in Missoula.
Colleen Driscoll matched a career high with 10 strikeouts and threw a shutout in Montana’s 5-0 victory in the opener. In the second game, the Hornets pounded out five extra-base hits, including a pair of home runs, to win 6-2.
Montana (24-27, 10-10 BSC) qualified for the tournament for the third consecutive season before its first game on Friday was over, courtesy of Idaho State being eliminated with its loss at North Dakota. But that did nothing to take the shine off what was perhaps the Grizzlies’ best win of its league schedule.
Driscoll was fantastic, the defense behind her was just as good and Montana was on Celina Matthias’s case from the first inning on.
Facing perhaps the Big Sky’s top offensive team, Driscoll needed just 90 pitches, 68 of which were strikes, to finish off her third shutout of the season. She allowed just four hits to a team that entered the game hitting .285, with the Big Sky’s top three individual batting averages.
She rolled through the first inning on seven pitches, all strikes, and never gave the Hornets much to swing at.
“I felt great. I just wanted to attack and give the best chance for the seniors to move on to the postseason,” said Driscoll. “I wanted to give everything I had.”
Driscoll had 10 strikeouts to match the career high she set earlier this season against Toledo, but she’s not an overpowering pitcher. She’s fine with the opponent putting the ball in play, knowing teammates like Alex Wardlow have her back.
As she did in the top of the second, when the right fielder charged in on a sinking line drive, caught it on the slide, then got right up and threw a strike to home to get a runner tagging up from third.
“My defense always has my back. I can always count on them,” said Driscoll. “It’s comforting knowing I can do what I can in the circle and put the ball where I hope it goes, but I know they’re behind me and will defend anything that gets hit.”
After collecting two hits in the second, the Hornets (28-18, 13-7 BSC) had just two more the rest of the game, one in the fourth, one in the sixth, with Driscoll striking out the side in the fifth.
Montana was on Matthias, the Big Sky leader in both ERA and strikeouts, from the start, when Delene Colburn lined out to right in the bottom of the first.
But the game’s first run wouldn’t come until the fifth, when Gabby Martinez drove in two with a sharp single to right. That made it open season on Matthias, who allowed three runs on five hits in the sixth as Montana added to its lead.
“I’m so proud of the way the team came out today,” said Meuchel. “There was a lot on the line and a lot of emotions going into this weekend. I felt like they were focused and poised and really got after it.
“We hit it well from the first inning. We came out attacking and looked good. Alex’s catch and throw-out really set the tone.”
Unlike most games, when Montana goes as the top of its lineup goes, this one was sparked by everyone else. The bottom half of the order had six of the team’s eight hits and scored four of the Grizzlies’ five runs, with Martinez finishing 2 for 2.
“They were really stringing them together,” said Meuchel. “This team is pretty unique. They truly want the best for each other, and sometimes that means stepping up and doing something when someone who has always picked us up isn’t on.
“It was fun to see the bottom half step up and string some things together and be real aggressive.”
For as good as it appeared that Driscoll threw in the opener, it couldn’t truly be appreciated until seeing Sacramento State at its best in game two, when the Hornets erupted for six runs on 10 hits, half of which went for extra bases.
“They pitch it well, they defend it well and they hit it well. They are a complete team. For Colleen to go out and really kind of stall them for most of the day, she dominated,” said Meuchel. “She had some velocity on her pitches and hit great spots. She was lights out.”
For as well as Sacramento State played in the second game, Montana still walked off the field with some regrets. There were opportunities to stay in it early, and the Grizzlies squandered them.
But not in the first. After starter Tristin Achenbach set the Hornets down in order, Jessica McAlister, who is 5 for 12 the last four games, came through with a two-run double that got Montana on the board.
Sacramento State tied it in the second, on a home run, triple and sacrifice fly, but Montana answered right back, putting two on for Colburn in the bottom half of the inning.
She came through with a single to center, but it was hit well enough that Meuchel threw up the stop sign on Wardlow as she rounded third. The other runners kept going, which put two runners near third base and allowed Sacramento State to tag out Wardlow in a rundown between home and third.
After Sac State scored two more off Achenbach in the third, including Suzy Brookshire’s league-leading 15th home run, a two-run shot with two outs that made it 4-2, Montana put runners on second and third with one out in its half of the inning.
But a ground ball led to an out at the plate, and a strikeout ended the threat. The Grizzlies would have just two more hits in the game as Savanna Corr went the distance, allowing one earned run.
And that brings Senior Day to the fore, a moment looked to — with curiosity, with dread — since Montana’s first team in 2015 had 15 freshmen. Eleven will be honored on Saturday following the game.
Montana lost each of its final Big Sky home games the last three seasons. The Grizzlies will try to break that streak when they face the Hornets at 1 p.m.
“We haven’t won a Senior Day game, so that’s the challenge I put in front of them,” said Meuchel. “Be the first to win. Be that team.
“I talked to the seniors about enjoying the moment instead of being in the this is my last mindset. Be in the moment, play hard for yourself and enjoy the game that will be sitting in front of us. Just enjoy the whole environment.”
There will be different kinds of pressure in play on Saturday. For Montana, it will be trying to send the seniors off in style. But the outcome of the game means little to what comes next. The Grizzlies are playing next week in Ogden but are out of the running for one of the two byes.
They are just playing for seeding.
With a win on Saturday, the Hornets, who along with Weber State will be next week’s top two seeds, would assure themselves of at least a share of the regular-season crown and clinch hosting rights to next year’s tournament.
“It feels good knowing the pressure is off,” said MaKenna McGill, who made one of the defensive plays of the year in the outfield in the second game on Friday, a diving catch in the left-center gap.
“We know all we have to do is show up tomorrow and have fun for our 11 seniors. We don’t have to worry about the consequences of not winning. We can just let loose and have fun. Those are our only goals really.”