(Editor’s note: story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA – The Montana softball program upped its incoming group of newcomers to eight recently when a pair of transfers accepted scholarship offers to join the Grizzlies.
Ava Dolan, of Las Vegas, will arrive as a junior in eligibility after playing two seasons at North Carolina Central. Cami Sellers, of Los Alamitos, Calif., will be a sophomore after spending one year at Boston College.
Montana signed four incoming freshmen in November, during the NCAA’s early signing period, and added two more in the spring.
The most recent additions further mitigate the effects of last spring’s 11-player senior class.
Montana will enter its fall season with a squad of 17, three below coach Melanie Meuchel’s preferred roster size of 20, but the Grizzlies will have just two seniors, pitchers Colleen Driscoll and Maddy Stensby.
A normal-sized incoming class of five a year from now would give Montana, for the first time in the short history of a program that began playing in 2015 with a freshman class of 15, as close a roster as it’s had to a 5/5/5/5 balance across classes.
With the addition of Dolan and Sellers, the Grizzlies will enter Year 5 with five juniors, four sophomores and six freshmen.
“Everyone assumed we’d go through our four years and be fully established, but it’s still going to take some work to get to where we wanted when we started this program,” said Meuchel, an assistant coach for the Grizzlies for three years before taking over as head coach last fall.
“It’s not going to be ideal all the time, but we’re on our way. (Adding these two players) starts to help us even it out.”
Both players, at first glance, would appear to be head-scratchers, with no apparent tie to the Montana program, either in hometown or their previous school, but it was personal connections that led both to the Grizzlies.
Dolan was a long-time club teammate of Griz pitcher Michaela Hood, who also hails from Las Vegas. The two will now be reunited in Montana’s junior class.
“I wanted to find somewhere that was a little closer to home and had more of a team environment,” said Dolan. “I knew Michaela loved it there, so I started asking her questions. How’s Montana? How’s the coach? Are you losing any players?
“She told me they were losing 11 seniors, and we went from there.”
The decision-making process included a trip to Montana last month as she attempted to narrow her list of finalists from two to one.
“I was between two schools. I chose to visit Montana instead of the other school, so it was almost like it was made up in my mind. But I wanted to meet Coach Mel and wanted to see the campus and softball facilities. It was exciting to see everything Montana has. My decision solidified from there.”
After batting .240 as a freshman in 2017, Dolan enjoyed a breakout sophomore season. She batted .391 and led the Eagles in home runs (9), RBIs (37) and runs scored (26).
She earned first-team All-MEAC honors, and her home run total and batting average were both Division I-era program records for North Carolina Central.
The power numbers put up by both Dolan and Sellers will be a welcome addition to a Montana team that had just 63 extra-base hits last season in 55 games, by far the lowest total in the Big Sky. More than 82 percent of the Grizzlies’ hits last season went for singles.
The other five teams that made up the field at the Big Sky Conference tournament in May averaged more than 103 extra-base hits.
“To be successful, you have to be able to put all facets of the game together. Ava has shown at the Division I level that she’s been able to put up numbers. I look forward to that continuing to grow at Montana,” said Meuchel.
“She loves to hit and she has a great personality, so she’ll be a great addition to our team.”
Dolan started mainly at third base in her two seasons at North Carolina Central, a position filled the back half of last season at Montana by then freshman Jessica McAlister, one of the team’s emerging stars.
But McAlister didn’t grow up a third baseman. She was a catcher, which is her preferred position, a spot left wide open by the departure of Madison Saacke and Dani Walker, the only two players to start at catcher the last two seasons for the Grizzlies.
But to project McAlister at catcher and Dolan at third base would be to overlook everyone else in the program, particularly the other newcomers, who will have all fall to make their case for the openings left by the departed senior class.
“Ava has played third base and catcher, but with her knowledge and ability, she could be a true utility player for us,” said Meuchel. “A lot of positions are open. With her versatility, it will be finding what fits best for our team.
“We’re excited to have her. Her personality fits with what we want from our athletes. We want great athletes but we want even better people, and her personality really showed through when we got her on campus. She fits the mold of a Griz softball player.”
It was a softball-world connection that brought Sellers to Montana as well, after one year at Boston College.
Sellers’ older sister, Rachel, who finished her four-year college career at Pacific in the spring, was both classmate at Los Alamitos High and club teammate of Saacke, who ended her four-year run with the Grizzlies in May.
Saacke’s and Sellers’ college teams faced each other twice in 2015, once in 2016 and again in February, at Grand Canyon’s season-opening tournament.
When Sellers decided it was time to move on from Boston College, Montana made her short list.
“They have a connection with the Saackes, so their family is familiar with Montana,” said Meuchel. “They’ve heard stories from Madison and her family about this place.”
Sellers visited just last week and didn’t need long to make it official.
“Missoula sells Missoula once you get a player on campus and show them around town. They get to experience the cool feel and how everyone loves the Griz,” said Meuchel. “She really liked the environment and atmosphere. It was a fun visit.”
Of all the newcomers, Sellers most easily projects into a position with her new team. She started all but one game for the Eagles at first base last season as a true freshman.
It’s a position of need for Montana, which lost to graduation Ashlyn Lyons, who started 187 games at first base for the Grizzlies in her career.
Like Lyons, Sellers is a left-handed hitter with power. One of her five home runs last season was a three-run shot against then No. 13 Alabama.
It wasn’t a rare chance to face one of the nation’s top teams. Boston College went 30-23 last spring and tied for second in the ACC’s Atlantic Division with a 13-10 league record. The only team ahead of the Eagles in the division standings? National champion Florida State.
Boston College rolled off a program-record 13-game winning streak between late March and early April, which included series sweeps of Virginia, Syracuse and North Carolina State. The streak was capped by a 1-0 victory over the Seminoles, the Eagles’ first over FSU since 2008.
So, yes, Sellers will do just fine as Montana tries to climb its way past Weber State and Sacramento State, back to the top of the Big Sky Conference.
“She’s going to be a good fit for us,” said Meuchel. “She’s going to bring the experience from playing in a great conference and program, and give us a lefty with some power.”
Montana signed Kylie Becker (Las Vegas), Maygen McGrath (Salem, Ore.), McKenna Tjaden (Murrieta, Calif.) and Reilly Williams (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) to National Letters of Intent in November.
Kaelyn Smith (Polson, Mont.) and Brooklyn Weisgram (Missoula) signed in April. All six will be freshmen in the fall.
Highlighted by Hood, who was voted first-team All-Big Sky as a freshman, Montana will be loaded at pitcher in 2018-19. Also returning will be Driscoll and Stensby, plus Tristin Achenbach, all part of a staff that had a 3.08 ERA last spring, the second-best mark in the Big Sky.
Among field players, however, only McAlister, at third base, and Anne Mari Petrino, in left field, started more than half of Montana’s games last season.