(Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA – The Montana softball team celebrated its first appearance at home this season with a pair of wins on Saturday, taking two games from Utah Valley at Grizzly Softball Field in Missoula, 5-4 and 10-3.
The Grizzlies (7-20) won the opener in textbook fashion, going single-sacrifice-double in the bottom of the seventh for a walk-off win, then used a seven-run fourth to blow open Game 2.
For as delightful as the day was — a warm March sun and Montana’s return drew more than 300 fans — it was just 72 hours earlier that the games appeared to be doubtful due to an unplayable field.
“We had a lot of people work really hard to get this field ready this week for us, and I think that motivated our players,” said coach Melanie Meuchel.
No one appeared to be more motivated or driven than Colleen Driscoll, but when has that not been the case?
The senior pitcher got the ball in the first game and set down the first 13 batters she faced, this against a team that entered the day batting .320 and averaging nearly six runs per game.
“That’s Colleen Driscoll. She is one of the most determined people I’ve been around,” said Meuchel. “She’s motivated in what she’s doing and knowledgeable in what she’s trying to do.
“She used her defense, and the defense came up with some plays.”
The teams entered the bottom of the fourth with just one hit between them, but that would change quickly.
Brooklyn Weisgram led off the inning with a bunt single, Cami Sellers singled through the right side, and Maygen McGrath drew a walk to load the bases for the Grizzlies’ top hitter, by average, Jessica McAlister.
She delivered with a double down the right-field line to open the game’s scoring. McGrath later scored on an RBI groundout by Kylie Becker.
Aided largely by a two-error play by Montana, the Grizzlies’ only two errors of the day, Utah Valley tied it in the top of the fifth at 3-3.
Montana retook the lead in the bottom of the fifth. Weisgram had another bunt single, this one with two outs. Sellers looked like she would end the inning with a groundout to second, but it was booted into right field, which advanced Weisgram to third.
After the ball made its back to the infield, Sellers headily got into a rundown between first and second. That allowed Weisgram to hustle home while Sellers slid safely back into first. She didn’t get an RBI on the play but could have gotten an assist.
Driscoll made it into the sixth and gave up the tying run before being relieved by Michaela Hood with two on and two outs.
She struck out four, walked just one. Only two of the four runs she allowed were earned.
“It’s so great to be home and have the fan support. The feeling and energy, it gives us more to play for. It’s a different atmosphere than anywhere else we go,” said Driscoll.
“I had a lot more nerves, so I really tried to stay within myself and not do anything differently today.”
Hood walked the first batter she faced, which loaded the bases with two outs, setting up one of the day’s big moments. On a 1-2 pitch, she coaxed an infield pop up to end the threat.
Montana left two on in the bottom of the sixth, Utah Valley one in the top of the seventh. All of which set the table for some end-game dramatics.
Lexi Knauss struck out her first three at-bats, but she drilled a line drive up the middle to lead off the bottom of the seventh.
With everyone knowing what Weisgram would try to do next, she executed it perfectly, setting down a bunt up the first-base line, leaving the only play to first, which put Knauss in scoring position.
It came after Weisgram, who finished the day 3 for 7 with four runs scored, had bunted for base hits her previous two at-bats.
“There is a little more pressure in that situation, because you have a job to do and you want to get it done for your team,” she said. “Every time I get into the box to bunt, I just think, piece of cake, piece of cake, get it down.”
Sellers didn’t waste any time ending things. She drove the first pitch she saw over the head of the centerfielder to score Knauss and give Montana the walk-off win.
“I’ve been saying for weeks that we’re close to breaking through. I felt like today we relaxed and played the game, had fun and played with a lot of pride,” said Meuchel.
“They’re just really proud to represent everyone who supports them. I’m really proud of the way they played today.”
Sellers finished with three of Montana’s eight hits, Hood threw one-hit relief to pick up her first win of the season in seven decisions.
Both teams had seven hits in Game 2, which wasn’t reflected in the final score. What propelled the Grizzlies to their second win of the day — and a season-high 10 runs — were four Utah Valley errors that led to seven unearned runs.
It started early, when Weisgram reached on an infield error in the first. After a wild pitch put her at third, Sellers made it 1-0 with a sacrifice fly.
That was only the start of Montana taking advantage of Utah Valley’s miscues. The Grizzlies scored seven runs in the fourth, on four hits and three errors to go up 8-2.
It’s the same way the Grizzlies dropped a handful of games over the first five weeks of the season.
“We talk offensively about capitalizing on other people’s mistakes and cashing in when you have people on base,” said Meuchel. “I felt like we did that a little bit today.
“We’ve had that done to us over the course of the season. Today we were able to pay ourselves back.”
That was enough for Tristin Achenbach, who picked up her second win of the season. She was relieved in the sixth by Hood, who gave up one hit over 1 2/3 innings.
It was only the second time this season, in 27 outings, that Montana has won back-to-back games.
“We’ve had to battle and grind the first five weeks and didn’t necessarily have the results we wanted, but they’ve always hung with it,” said Meuchel.
“They’ve always had a little bit of spice to them and stayed committed. I’m proud they’re getting paid back for hanging with it and having good, positive thoughts.”
The teams will wrap up their three-game series on Sunday at 1 p.m.