(EDITOR’S NOTE: INFORMATION FROM UNIVERSITY RELEASE)
MISSOULA – The story of Senior Day on Saturday for the Montana softball team wasn’t what took place between the lines against Sacramento State at Grizzly Softball Field.
Instead it was what took place on the periphery.
It was the circle of people waiting to gain access to the facility when the gates opened 60 minutes prior to first pitch and the line of fans that was still there while the anthem was being sung.
It was of the electricity and anticipation that slowly built as warmups turned to introductions, which led to the anthem, which led to the opening pitch.
It was of the new, first-year grandstand behind home plate being filled nearly to capacity, with dozens of occupied lawn chairs still popping up beyond the outfield fence.
It was that all this was taking place on a section of South Campus that less than four years ago was a nondescript patch of grass.
It was of the crowd of 806, the second largest in program history behind only the 854 who witnessed the Grizzlies make their debut back in 2015.
And it was of the one thing that bridged those two crowds, the players who were freshmen that first season who were recognized on Saturday for making Montana softball what it’s become.
“What I told them at the end was that the outcome of this game isn’t what defines them,” said Meuchel, whose team fell 8-0 as the Hornets clinched a share of the Big Sky Conference regular-season title.
“I told them to look around, look at what they’ve built. Look at the people who appreciate and love what you do. And the seniors have been through it every step of the way. They have a lot to be proud of.”
It was a day that had been eyed since the program started with 15 freshmen in 2015. Ten made it through all four years, with another, a transfer, coming on for the final three seasons.
So it was going to be a difficult, emotional day no matter the opponent. It just happed that Sacramento State held plenty of motivation itself.
Win and the Hornets would clinch a share of the Big Sky championship with Weber State, earn the No. 1 seed to next week’s tournament in Ogden, Utah, and lock up hosting rights to next year’s tournament.
It was a dangerous cocktail, of a team with everything to play for mixed with another that was trying to corral its emotions and focus on the task at hand and not the postgame ceremony.
Stymied by Colleen Driscoll in Friday’s opener, a 5-0 Montana win, Sacramento State attacked the junior pitcher early on Saturday.
After Driscoll set down the first two batters of the game, she walked Big Sky home run leader Suzy Brookshire, then gave up an infield single. Mo Spieth followed with her third home run of the season.
The Hornets broke the game open in the second, scoring three more runs on four hits.
That would be plenty for Celina Matthias, the Big Sky leader in wins, ERA and strikeouts, who had a rare off outing on Friday, allowing five runs and eight hits in the Hornets’ series-opening loss.
Her own brilliance combined with Montana’s pressing impatience allowed her to limit the Grizzlies to just two hits, their fewest in a game since facing Oregon nearly two months ago.
“She was better at spotting her ball today. She was a little more all over yesterday,” said Meuchel. “With some of the emotions we had, we forced some things, but she was good.”
Freshman Jessica McAlister, proving that there will indeed be Griz softball beyond this spring, had one of the team’s hits to extend her hitting streak to five. Gabby Martinez was the lone senior to collect a hit.
One day after throwing a shutout on 90 pitches and allowing just four hits, Driscoll lasted only 1 1/3 innings. She was replaced by Maddy Stensby with the score already 5-0.
It would turn out to be the worst home shutout loss in program history.
“It’s hard to take and walk away with a game like that,” said Meuchel. “But it doesn’t take away from what the seniors have put into this program.”
And now it will be almost a relief, that Senior Day and everything associated with the weekend is done. Now it can go back to being about softball, and it needs to with the tournament opening on Thursday.
Unlike last season, when the Grizzlies had the benefit of the No. 2 seed and a bye out of the first round, it will require more work this time around to replicate last spring’s tournament championship.
But Montana has been getting prepared for the postseason for an entire month. All nine of its most recent league games entering this weekend had been decided by three runs or fewer, with seven one-run outcomes.
Whether it’s resulted in a win or a loss, it’s been championship softball.
“For the last four weeks we’ve had to have so much attention to detail and attention to what we’ve been doing,” said Meuchel. “And we’ve still been aggressive, determined and executing.
“I’m excited where we are and that (the location of the tournament) will be very familiar to us. I think we still have a lot of season ahead of us.”
Montana will be either the tournament’s No. 4 or 5 seed and will play its first game in Ogden at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday against either Portland State or Northern Colorado.
The winner of that first-round game will face No. 1 seed Sacramento State at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday.