(Editor’s note: story by University of Montana communications)
MISSOULA – The Montana softball team played games at the extremes on Saturday at Grizzly Softball Field in Missoula as its fall exhibition season reached the midpoint. Montana scored 15 runs in the fourth and fifth innings in its opener to break open what had been a close game early and defeat Providence 21-1. The Grizzlies followed that up with a nail-biter, winning 2-1 over North Idaho on Morgan Johnson’s walk-off home run leading off the bottom of the seventh.
“It’s always good to be challenged. One thing about our sport is that it doesn’t matter the level (of the opponent). All it takes is one hit or one great outing on the mound,” said Griz coach Melanie Meuchel.
That great outing against North Idaho came from Madi Mott, who hit a solo home run off Montana starter Tristin Achenbach in the top of the first, then held the Grizzlies to a single run through six innings. Johnson led off the bottom of the seventh after taking a piece of hitting advice from first-year graduate assistant coach Magali Frezzotti.
“They’d been pitching me inside, so before my at-bat, Coach Maggie came up to me and said, ‘Set up, then move back in the box.’ That’s what I did, and it worked perfectly,” said Johnson.
After falling behind 0-1 in the count, Johnson put the second pitch she faced over the fence in left field for her first walk-off home run since leading Big Sky to a victory over Hellgate as a high school freshman.
“I actually didn’t think I hit it over. I was mad because I thought I hit it on the end of the bat. I ran with my head down and didn’t even know I hit it over until I reached second base,” said Johnson.
It was a joyous ending to a day that began in the most inauspicious way possible. Providence’s second batter in the top of the first inning in the opening game of the day spun one 10 feet down the first-base line that Montana’s catcher jumped on. But the throw to first base was offline and ended up bouncing down the right-field line. By the time Montana got the ball back into the infield, the batter was crossing home plate, and Providence led 1-0.
The Grizzlies responded by going down meekly and quietly in the bottom of the first.
“It’s always fun to be challenged throughout the day, and in Game 1 we were presented early with a challenge,” said Meuchel. “They scored on us first and got after us and kind of got us back on our heels, and we got really quiet.
“It took us a while before we found our rhythm and took advantage of some opportunities they gave us.”
Montana scored four runs in the bottom of the third to take the lead, and that was only the beginning. The Grizzlies added six in the fourth and nine more in the fifth, when 15 batters came to the plate.
Freshman Kylie Becker, who got the start at shortstop, had four hits and was one of five players who scored three runs. Freshman Reilly Williams had a two-run home run in the fourth and a bases-clearing double in the fifth to finish the day with five RBIs. And she still wasn’t the game’s leader in that category. Anne Mari Petrino, who had eight RBIs in 53 games played last spring, had seven against the Lady Argos. Montana’s left fielder came through with three two-run singles and walked in the fifth with the bases loaded.
Freshman Maygen McGrath homered to straightaway center in the sixth to make it 20-1, doing her best impression of Delene Colburn, who she’s replaced at shortstop most of the fall.
“She’s such a good player to look up to, it’s cool to fill her position,” said McGrath. “It’s a lot of pressure, but I’m settling in and figuring it out.
“(Last year’s senior class) definitely set the bar very high. I want to be like them and keep it going.”
Despite being saddled with the early unearned run, Griz starter Michaela Hood threw four hitless innings and struck out six. Colleen Driscoll struck out five while working the final three innings.
It took less than 10 pitches into the second game for it to feel like the opener had only been a warmup for day’s main test. That’s when Mott homered to left-center off Achenbach.
Montana was in a position to have an immediate answer in the bottom half of the first when the Grizzlies loaded the bases with one out, but Williams getting hit by a pitch to make it 1-1 was the only scoring done.
Two fly outs later, North Idaho was out of the jam.
Neither team would score again until Johnson’s walk-off in the bottom of the seventh, with Mott limiting the Grizzlies to three hits between the first inning and Johnson’s home run.
Achenbach would go on to strike out eight through four innings. Maddy Stensby pitched the final three innings. She collected four strikeouts of her own, giving Montana’s staff 23 on the day.
“Game 2 presented a junior college team that is very good and swings the bat well,” said Meuchel. “I thought their pitcher did a great job and held us at bay.
“We hit some balls, but we just got under them. I’m proud of the girls to keep grinding.”
Both teams missed out on opportunities to break the tie before Johnson took matters into her own hands (and bat).
Cami Sellers led off the bottom of the sixth with a line drive to the base of the fence in left-center, a ball hit so hard she was only able to get to first on the play. McGrath advanced her to second with a sacrifice, but that’s where she remained, stranded by a pop-up and strikeout.
With one out in the top of the seventh, North Idaho came through with a double, but the batter got greedy and tried to stretch it into a triple. The relay from Kylie Hayton to McGrath to Ava Dolan at third cut the runner down, sending the game into the bottom of the seventh, still tied 1-1.
“There was a lot of grit and grind needed for us to pull through in that game,” said Johnson. “We got stagnant a little bit, and we were a little quiet. Finally the time comes and you realize this is the last inning and you’ve got to pull through.”
Johnson has been a .115 hitter through her first two seasons as a Grizzly, with just seven career hits in 61 at-bats, so she would seem an unlikely candidate to end a game in such dramatic fashion.
But her numbers are more a product of the situation she’s been in than a reflection of the player. Almost all of her at-bats have come as a pinch hitter as she’s waited for her time.
Playing first base and as a designated player, she already has 13 at-bats this fall, an arc that mirrors that of Lexi Knauss, who homered two weeks ago and is also finding her groove as a full-time player after struggling offensively in limited at-bats last spring as a freshman.
“Our message in our end-of-year meetings last season was to hang with it, because some players haven’t been given opportunities yet,” said Meuchel.
“Morgan has a great bat. It’s nice to see her squaring up a lot of balls. We have some players who are settling into the type of ballplayers they are.”
Montana will host Carroll in a doubleheader on Sunday, Oct. 7, beginning at 1 p.m.