(Editor’s note: University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA — The Montana softball team’s 2019 schedule was completed recently, and it has a familiar flow to it, just as it has in the past and always will. It comes with playing an outdoor sport in Montana with a season that opens in early February.
- Five weeks of heading south or west for multi-team tournaments in February and early March
- A nonconference series or two, preferably in Missoula to open the home schedule in mid-March
- The start of Big Sky Conference games
- The league tournament in early May
- In the best of scenarios, national postseason play beyond that
Within that framework, it’s just working out the details.
“We know we’re going to be on the road the first five weeks pretty much year in and year out. We try to find places that put our players close to their hometowns and us in some of our recruiting areas while also getting us in some very good tournaments,” said second-year coach Melanie Meuchel.
Montana will open its upcoming schedule in California, then travel to New Mexico before making three consecutive trips back to California. All five tournaments have Montana scheduled to play five games.
If all goes according to plan, the Grizzlies will have played 25 games on the road before opening at home with a three-game series against Utah Valley on March 16-17.
The payoff for all that time on the road will be sweet: The series against Utah Valley will start a stretch of 19 of 25 games at home. Montana is 50-22 in four years playing at Grizzly Softball Field.
But first those road tournaments, starting with the Nor Cal Kickoff, co-hosted by UC Davis and Sacramento State from Feb. 8-10, purposefully scheduled because the Hornets will be hosting the Big Sky tournament the second week of May.
Then it will be off to Las Cruces, N.M., for the Troy Cox Tournament, a location that will mean something probably only to Meuchel. She will be the only coach or player still at Montana who was there in February 2015, when the Grizzlies made their program debut in Las Cruces.
“That was our first trip ever as a program, so it will be fun to take a new group down there,” Meuchel said. “They have a nice facility and put on a good tournament. They really take care of their teams.”
After playing in another co-hosted tournament, this one by San Jose State and Santa Clara, Montana will open March with a trip to Palo Alto for Stanford’s tournament, one of the season’s highlights.
The Grizzlies will get two games against the Cardinal, another against North Dakota State, which has made the NCAA tournament nine of the past 10 years, and one against Northwestern, also an NCAA tournament qualifier a year ago out of the Big Ten.
The final of five early-season tournaments will have Montana in Fresno, also a repeat trip of one that was made in the debut season of 2015.
The Grizzlies will get two games against the Bulldogs, who Montana faced in the 2017 NCAA tournament in Seattle, another against North Dakota, which went 4-0 against the Grizzlies last spring, including a 3-2 win at the Big Sky tournament in Ogden, Utah, that ended Montana’s season.
With the Big Sky down to seven teams after the departure of UND for the Summit League, one conference team will have a break in its schedule each weekend once league games commence.
Montana will be the first team to be off, which allowed Meuchel to follow her team’s home series with Utah Valley with a three-game home series against Nevada.
Utah Valley played a series in Missoula last spring, Nevada traveled to Montana in 2016.
“Those two programs coming back shows what we have at Montana, from the facilities to the fans to the product we put on the field,” said Meuchel. “They speak highly of their experience and wanted to return.”
Each Big Sky team will now have a balanced schedule, with three home series and three on the road. The Grizzlies get Idaho State, Portland State and Northern Colorado at home and will play Sacramento State, Weber State and Southern Utah on the road.
Sacramento State is the defending tournament champion — the Hornets and Weber State shared the regular-season title with 14-7 league records — Northern Colorado and Southern Utah are under new coaches.
Six of the seven teams will advance to the league tournament in Sacramento, which opens on Wednesday, May 8.
“It will be another major race between the seven teams. The last two years it’s come down to the very end, and I can see that being the case again this year,” said Meuchel, whose team also will get home doubleheaders in April against Carroll and Providence (MT).
“There isn’t a team that stands out and not a team that sits on the bottom of the pack.”
Montana has made the Big Sky tournament the last three seasons, winning the league title in 2017.