(Editor’s note: story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA – The Montana softball program signed four prep athletes to National Letters of Intent over the last two weeks.
Joining the Grizzlies as freshmen next fall will be Kendall Curtis, of Snohomish, Wash.; Jaxie Klucewich, of Eagle, Idaho; Julie Phelps, of Riverside, Calif.; and Ashley Ward, of Henderson, Nev.
Ward is a left-handed pitcher, Phelps an outfielder, while Curtis and Klucewich are both utility infielders.
Montana will lose two seniors at the conclusion of its upcoming spring season, pitchers Colleen Driscoll and Maddy Stensby.
“I see this group coming in and pushing what we have to make us better,” said coach Melanie Meuchel. “They play with a lot of passion. “Defensively they are a very strong group, and they will bring speed offensively.”
Beyond its uniqueness, the name Klucewich may stand out. A pair of Klucewiches played football for the Grizzlies back in the 80s — Joe and Josh, her uncles — and Jaxie Klucewich returned to the place of her birth to spend the back half of her sophomore year at Missoula’s Big Sky High.
“I was born in Missoula and grew up in a Griz family, so this has been a dream of mine since I was little,” she said of joining Montana. “As soon as I heard they were starting a softball program, I made it a goal to try and play there.”
Klucewich returned to Eagle High for her junior year and will go into her final season as a Mustang in the spring trying to turn around last spring’s disappointment.
Her high school team dropped a pair of one-run games to title-winning Boise High at the Class 5A state tournament to finish in second place and miss out on making it four consecutive state championships.
Klucewich, who also plays basketball at Eagle High, was named one of four first-team infielders on the All-Southern Idaho Conference squad in May.
“Jaxie lives in Idaho and plays for one of the top high school teams in the state, but she has a lot of ties to this area and has come to a number of our camps,” said Meuchel. “She has a skillset and great speed.
“She’s spunky, she’s feisty, and she plays the game with a lot of passion. She’ll definitely bring a passion and love for the Griz and the University of Montana.”
Montana will be loaded at pitcher in the spring, with Driscoll and Stensby, plus junior Michaela Hood, who was first-team All-Big Sky as a freshman in 2017, and sophomore Tristin Achenbach.
But come May, that staff of four will be cut in half by graduation. Enter: Ward, who is a senior at Coronado High and will increase the size of the staff to three.
“I feel like either three or four is an ideal size for a staff,” said Meuchel. “If you have pitchers who are very quality, they are going to eat up a lot of innings. Adding Ashley will give us three quality pitchers who will be able to give us a lot of productive innings.”
Ward was the Player of the Year for the Sunrise League last spring. It’s instructive to note that her teammate, Tatum Spangler, was voted the Pitcher of the Year.
That’s because Ward is more than just a thrower. “I consider myself a hitter, too,” she said, putting her in the mold of North Dakota’s Kaylin VanDomelen, who terrorized the Big Sky in recent years, both from inside the circle and with a bat in her hands.
“I’m always looking for players who can bring multiple value to the program, and Ashley does that,” said Meuchel, who got both Stensby and Hood at-bats in the fall and plans to use their skills at the plate in the spring as well.
“I always tell pitchers that they don’t have to have value to our game only in the circle. I want them to be an athlete. I’ll hit our best hitters, and if our pitchers fall into that category, then we’ll find a way to use them.”
But Ward, who is 5-foot-6, which means she’ll stand out when standing beside the 6-foot Achenbach and 5-foot-10 Hood, was recruited first and foremost as a pitcher.
“She doesn’t have the height some of our pitchers have, but she has some gifts that make up for her size,” said Meuchel. “She competes really hard, and that adds size to her game. She is not afraid to attack hitters. She has some pretty good spin from the left side.”
Ward was the last of the four to sign. She didn’t make her official visit to campus until early November. She missed out on a home football weekend, but Montana’s men’s basketball victory over Georgia State in front of more than 4,300 fans in the Grizzlies’ season opener was more than enough to sell her.
“We went to a basketball game, and I thought it was awesome how people supported their team,” she said. “I knew then that’s where I wanted to be.”
If Ward’s was a last-minute decision, Curtis, a senior at Glacier Peak High, had Montana as her top choice for years.
“I always looked up to college athletes when I was younger. I went to a Montana camp in the ninth grade and fell in love with it right away. I really wanted to go there,” said Curtis, who was named first-team All-Wesco as a junior and second-team All-Area by The Daily Herald after batting .542.
“I loved how beautiful Montana was and how unique it was compared to the other schools I was looking at. It really stuck out to me. Once I got the phone call with the offer, I was speechless.”
Curtis plays club softball for the Washington Ladyhawks, the same club that produced former Grizzlies Delene Colburn and Ashlyn Lyons. You may have heard of them.
“They produce a lot of great athletes,” said Meuchel. “Kendall is a kid who plays hard, has good hands and has some power from the right side.
“She plays a lot like (second baseman Lexie Knauss), with a little more spunk to her. She’ll push people at positions and add depth for us.”
Phelps, a senior at JW North High in Southern California, is a slap hitter at the plate and a general in the outfield.
“She’s kind of a quiet kid on the field, but I like the demeanor and the aggressiveness that she plays with,” said Meuchel. “She has a lot of speed, great arm strength and does a great job of controlling the outfield.
“She has a lot of different things she can do at the plate and is adding a little more power to her game.”
Phelps was voted first-team All-Sunbelt League as a sophomore and junior, and last spring was a member of the JW North High team that made it to its first-ever CIF championship game, falling 5-3 to Chaminade for the Division 5 CIF-Southern Section title.
The game was played in Irvine, just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.
“At first I was surprised,” Phelps said about hearing from Meuchel. “Montana had never gone through my mind when I was thinking about colleges. But the more I looked into it, I really ended up falling in love. It exceeded my expectations.
“I was looking for somewhere that would give me a great educational experience and set me up for what I want to do in life, so it was the perfect match for me. The girls on the team were great, and the campus was so beautiful. It made me feel at home.”
And that’s it. For now. But next fall is a long ways away, and Meuchel never knows from whom she’ll hear or what she’ll find in the meantime.
“I feel happy with the recruits we have coming in and feel we’ll have a good, young core returning,” she said. “This class will add to the strength of our program and give us versatility in a lot of areas and add some competition. They’ll make us better.
“We could maybe gain another person, but we don’t need to add any more players because of numbers. It would have to be the right player with the right strengths. Or this could be our team. If that’s the case, I’m very happy with where we are.”