(Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA – After 20 games in California and five more in New Mexico — and all the wear and tear that comes with traveling for five straight weekends — the Montana softball team will make its home debut this weekend against Utah Valley.
The Grizzlies and Wolverines, who played a three-game series in Missoula last spring as well, will play a doubleheader on Saturday beginning at 1 p.m. at Grizzly Softball Field. The series will conclude with a single game at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
This weekend will be the start of Montana’s 19-game home schedule and the first of nine straight at Grizzly Softball Field. The Grizzlies will host Nevada in a three-game series next week, then close March by hosting Idaho State as Montana’s Big Sky Conference schedule commences.
Coverage: All 19 of Montana’s home games will have coverage through Pluto TV (channel 237) and WatchBigSky.com, plus live stats. This weekend’s series will feature Cole Johnson on the play-by-play.
At a glance (Montana): The Grizzlies, who have dropped four straight, come out of the five-weekend tournament portion of their schedule with a record of 5-20. Montana opened the season in California, then traveled to New Mexico before going back to California for three straight weekends.
Montana’s wins have all come against teams from California: Santa Clara twice, CSU Bakersfield, Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara.
At a glance (Utah Valley): The Wolverines, both through scheduling and cancelations, have played just 14 games to date. They are 6-8 but have won three in a row, including a two-game sweep on Sunday of Southern Utah when Utah Valley put up 25 runs against the Thunderbirds.
Utah Valley’s road trip north will conclude with a two-game series at Idaho State on Tuesday. The Wolverines open their WAC schedule next weekend at Grand Canyon.
Three things to note (Montana):
* After opening the season scoring at least one run in its first 18 games, a program record to start a season, the Grizzlies have been shut out in four of their last seven, against Stanford and No. 23 Northwestern two weeks ago, then twice against Fresno State last weekend.
* After shutting out UC Santa Barbara 5-0 last Friday to open the Bulldog Classic in Fresno, Montana lost its next four, falling to Cal Baptist, North Dakota and twice to Fresno State by a combined score of 30-3. The Grizzlies’ team batting average has gone from .273 on Feb. 23 to .247 after the Bulldog Classic.
* Montana has a four-year record at Grizzly Softball Field of 50-22. Three of those wins came last spring in a series sweep against Utah Valley, the middle game a 2-1 victory that ended in the bottom of the ninth when Jessica McAlister came through with the first walk-off home run in program history.
Three things to note (Utah Valley):
* Though it has a relatively small body of work compared to most other teams in the national statistics, Utah Valley enters this weekend’s series ranked 23rd with a team batting average of .320. The Wolverines have scored eight or more runs in six of their 14 games.
* Before she shows up in Missoula, sophomore first baseman Peyton Angulo, last season’s WAC Freshman of the Year, showed up in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, in the magazine’s Faces in the Crowd. She opened the season going 17 for 29 (.586), with six extra-base hits.
* For as salty as Utah Valley’s offense has been, its pitching staff has an ERA of 6.16 and is allowing opponents to bat .377. Junior Devyn Cretz, a transfer from UTEP, has a team-high four wins. She is one of nine transfers on coach TJ Hubbard’s third team at Utah Valley.
Series history: Montana is 4-0 against Utah Valley. The Grizzlies defeated the Wolverines 9-6 in St. George, Utah, in their NCAA tournament season of 2017, then swept Utah Valley in Missoula last March, posting wins of 7-3, 2-1 and 8-2.
The state of Montana:
The Grizzlies traveled more than 10,000 miles the first five weekends of the season. Their weekly reward each Sunday (late) night they returned home: cold, dark and snow, more and more snow that kept them off their field for another week and relegated them to their indoor practice facility.
“This week is always kind of the light at the end of the tunnel, but with the temperatures we kept returning to, everyone wondered if we’d be playing in Missoula this year,” said coach Melanie Meuchel.
Alas, hints of spring have finally arrived: sun, relatively warmer weather, all enough to make Grizzly Softball Field playable, just in time, a first for Montana since the opening week of practices in mid-January, before a late winter settled over western Montana for an extended stay.
“There has been a different feel this week. Everyone is excited. They’ve had a little extra bounce in their step. There is a lot of excitement that we’re home and going to be able to compete in front of our fans,” said Meuchel.
“We’ve been on our field the last few days, and it’s the first time since the first practices in January. Even then, it was still frozen and there was ice, so we weren’t able to have any hustle practices. We’ve finally been able to sprint on the field this week.”
First arrives Utah Valley and the Wolverines’ potent offense, which is averaging nearly six runs per game and has three players batting better than .420 and six hitting over .300.
Utah Valley defeated North Dakota 8-4 at UNLV’s season-opening tournament last month, the same Fighting Hawks team that held Montana down in a 6-2 victory in Fresno. And on Sunday the Wolverines roughed up Southern Utah 12-6 and 13-6.
Utah Valley, picked fourth in the preseason, finished second in the WAC last year, earning Hubbard league Coach of the Year honors, and advanced to the National Invitational Softball Championship. The Wolverines were picked fourth again this spring, behind New Mexico State, Grand Canyon and Seattle.
“TJ came in a couple of years ago and has done a good job,” said Meuchel. “He’s always produced hitters in their lineup. I think they’ll bring it to Missoula.
“Last year when they came in, we had some competitive games that went down to the wire. I expect competitive games this weekend as well.”
The outfield: Montana’s outfield has been made up of juniors Anne Mari Petrino and Kylie Hayton, and freshmen Brooklyn Weisgram and Katie Pippel.
Weisgram, who ranks fourth on the team in batting average at .290, has made center field her own after starting the season in right. Her move to center opened up an opportunity for Pippel, who has made a dozen starts in right since Weisgram’s shift to her right.
Petrino has made 19 starts in left, with Hayton getting six. Hayton started the final two games at Fresno in right.
“We’ve done a little bit of mixing everywhere,” said Meuchel. “It’s still a dynamic in which people are competing each day for a position, whether that’s offensively or defensively.”
The infield: The infield has been more stable, with sophomore Lexi Knauss starting all 25 games at second base, freshman Maygen McGrath all 25 at shortstop and sophomore Cami Sellers 23 of 25 at first base.
They double as three of the team’s top hitters, with McGrath batting .315, Knauss .295 and Sellers .284. They have 29 of Montana’s 45 extra-base hits.
Freshman Kylie Becker has made 18 starts at third. The only time she’s platooned is when sophomore Jessica McAlister, who leads Montana with a .339 batting average, gets a break from playing catcher.
“We want to give Jessica a little bit of rest, but it’s hard to take her out of the lineup with the way she’s producing and the things she brings to the team,” said Meuchel. “She’s versatile and can play a couple of different positions, and sometimes that takes someone else out of a position.
“We don’t have a solid nine where we say, okay, we’re rolling with you. We just try to find the right personnel, whether it’s the pitcher we’re facing or someone is hot at the plate.
Catcher: McAlister played third last season but has moved primarily to catcher, the position in which she is more experienced, in her second year.
But playing every game, especially early in the year, when five games in three days is the norm, can become taxing, so she’s spent time at third as well.
That’s afforded an opportunity to freshman McKenna Tjaden, who has made 10 starts behind the plate. Of her five hits this season, she has a double and hit a home run against Stanford.
“Five games on a weekend can be grueling. It’s a lot of wear and tear on a body. You can catch someone 56 games in a season, but I think we’re skilled enough that we don’t have to put that kind of grind on one individual,” said Meuchel.
Pitcher: Montana opened the season with a 3-0 victory over Santa Clara, with senior Colleen Driscoll working five innings for the win and sophomore Tristin Achenbach the final two for her first collegiate save.
Later that day, the Grizzlies lost 2-1 at UC Davis, with Maddy Stensby taking the tough-luck loss after allowing a pair of unearned runs.
Through two games, Montana had a team ERA of 0.00, not surprising since pitcher was expected to be a position of strength for the Grizzlies, with four strong arms returning for a staff that had a 3.08 ERA last season.
But it hasn’t gone as smoothly as anticipated. Montana has a team ERA after 25 games of 4.91 and is allowing more than 1.8 hits and walks per inning pitched.
Driscoll has four of Montana’s five wins, Achenbach the other. Junior Michaela Hood, first-team All-Big Sky as a freshman, is 0-6 with an ERA of 5.63. Stensby is 0-5 with an ERA of 6.26.
“Part of it is getting them back to healthy. We had a couple with the flu the last couple of weeks,” said Meuchel. “But we also need to get back to trusting what they have and keep attacking the zone.
“A lot has been placed on them and a lot is expected of them. There are times when they are trying to do too much of the job instead of just focusing on what the job is in front of them. We need to simplify it a little bit more, trust what you have and take care of what you can control.”
Designated player: It’s not often a starting pitcher doubles as a team’s usual designated player, but that’s been the case for Montana with Maddy Stensby.
The left-hander is batting .269 with four doubles and three RBIs. Her eight runs scored are tied for second on the team behind Maygen McGrath’s 10.
She has made four starts at pitcher, with 13 appearances overall, 17 starts at designated player.
Offense: Montana was slow to get going offensively this season, which wasn’t a surprise. The Grizzlies batted .219 with five extra-base hits over five games at the NorCal Kickoff.
But over the next two tournaments, at New Mexico State and Santa Clara/San Jose State, things started rolling. Montana batted .296 over its 10 games, with 25 extra-base hits.
When the level of competition picked up at the Stanford Invitational — the Grizzlies faced a ranked Northwestern team, North Dakota State and the Cardinal twice — that average plummeted to .200 over five games, with five extra-base hits. And they took their first shutout.
Montana batted .208 last weekend at Fresno State. McAlister hit .364, but only Brooklyn Weisgram had as many hits (5) as games the Grizzlies played (5).
“We started out a lot hotter at the plate, but we’ve seen some good pitching the last couple of weeks,” said Meuchel, whose team struck out 12 times in its loss to Northwestern, then 13 times in its first matchup against Fresno State last weekend.
“There have been times when the top of our lineup has carried us and there have been times when they’ve been a little more silent and the bottom of our lineup has produced some things for us. We’re seeing some success throughout the lineup.”
Montana enters this weekend batting .247, with McAlister (.339) and McGrath (.315) batting over .300, Knauss (.295), Weisgram (.290), Sellers (.284) and Stensby (.269) batting better than .250.
The big jump for the Grizzlies compared to last year is their amount of extra-base hits. Last season the team totaled 63 in 55 games, and 38 of those came off the bats of two players, Delene Colburn and Ashlyn Lyons.
This year’s team already has 45 through 25 games and in theory those numbers should go up as Montana gets more and more live practices.
Upcoming: Montana will host Nevada next week in a three-game, three-day series. The teams will play a single game at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, a final game at 1 p.m. on Saturday.