(Editor’s note: University of Montana athletics release)
MISSOULA — The Montana softball team, the 2019 edition, the fifth in program history, has been together for months now. The Grizzlies played six exhibition games in the fall and had dozens of practices and individual workouts before departing campus in December for the holiday break.
But there will still be a sense of newness on Monday when Montana arrives at Grizzly Softball Field for the first official team practice of the spring season. That was bound to be the case with eight of the 17 players on the team still technically newcomers, as in seven freshmen and one sophomore transfer.
“The vibe of this team is that there is a little bit of unknown,” said second-year coach Melanie Meuchel, who has been with the program from the start. “We had some time in the fall, but there are still some unknowns, of who we are, but they are a very determined group. They are pretty hungry to get going.”
The team will have less than a month to prepare for its season openers, when it faces Santa Clara and UC Davis on Friday, Feb. 8, in Davis, Calif.
That will start the annual five-week blur of airports and hotels and weekends packed with multiple games, all sandwiched between classes and studying and practice.
Montana will open in California, then head to Las Cruces, N.M., then make three more trips to California, twice to the Bay Area, once to Fresno.
If all goes according to plan — in other words, in regards to travel and weather — Montana will be playing game No. 25 when it wraps up its tournament schedule against North Dakota on Sunday morning, March 10, in Fresno.
“I’m really happy with some of the locations. We’ve got a couple of new places and some we’ve seen before,” said Meuchel. “And it’s always fun to see some new teams.
“We’ll see some opponents who we’ll match up well against and others who will challenge us, and that’s what we want. We want that challenge so we grow as the season goes on and we’re at our strongest come May.”
Once that gauntlet has been endured, Montana will get nine straight games at home, with series against Utah Valley, Nevada and Idaho State, and 19 of 25 at Grizzly Softball Field, where Montana is 50-22 over the facility’s first four years.
“We’ll be able to catch some wind in March, when we’ll be able to get into a routine in Missoula,” said Meuchel. “But those first five weeks, it’s pretty inevitable we’ll be on the road every season.”
With so much new this season, the result of 11 seniors graduating out of the program last spring, the one certainty is the team’s pitching, which is a good position to have locked down, particularly since that mostly returning staff had a 3.08 ERA last spring, the second-lowest mark in the Big Sky Conference.
It’s almost an embarrassment of riches for Meuchel, who has two senior pitchers in Colleen Driscoll and Maddy Stensby, the only two seniors on the team.
“They’ve both been here through the long haul and are starting to reap the benefits of the work they’ve put in, both mentally and physically,” said Meuchel.
Then there is junior Michaela Hood, who was hindered by an injury last spring but who made a splashy debut in 2017, when she was voted first-team All-Big Sky as a freshman and was the MVP of the Big Sky tournament, which Montana won.
Hood, now fully healthy, had a 0.00 ERA in the fall, throwing 10 innings over three appearances.
Finally there is sophomore Tristin Achenbach, who threw a no-hitter last spring and struck out a staff-high 18 batters in 10 innings in the fall.
“You work to build your team around your staff a little bit, and I’m really proud of the staff we’ve been able to develop,” said Meuchel. “All four of them complete each other and challenge each other, but they also support each other as well.
“I’m looking forward to seeing their success individually but also their success as a full unit, whether it takes all of them to finish a weekend off or all of them to finish a game off. However we can stop people.”
Montana batted .249 last season, one of the lowest marks in the conference, and had the fewest extra-base hits, by far, of any Big Sky team, with just 63 in 55 games. It was a season-long stumbling block, as the Grizzlies 23 times scored two or fewer runs.
All it took last fall, in Montana’s first exhibition game against MSU Billings, was one at-bat by Boston College transfer Cami Sellers to give this year’s offense a new feel.
She went 3 for 4 that day, with two RBIs and two runs scored. And she seemed to unleash her teammates as well. It wasn’t Division I pitching the Grizzlies were facing, but they batted .381 in the fall, with 20 extra-base hits in six games.
“She has a confidence in her ability at the plate that seemed to feed over to other people. I saw our approaches being a lot more comfortable, a lot more determined. We saw some great success as an entire team at the plate,” said Meuchel.
Sellers batted a Delene Colburn-like .526 in the fall.
“Cami has every strength you can have at the plate, from her mindset to her ability to strike the ball well,” added Meuchel. “Anytime you have a good hitter, they’ll push and challenge others.”
Of the players who had nine or more plate appearances in the fall, the top four batting averages came from the bats of newcomers.
Freshman McKenna Tjaden batted .556 and drew three walks, which had her reaching base two out of every three times she stepped to the plate.
Sellers hit .526, freshman Brooklyn Weisgram .455 and freshman Maygen McGrath .412. Freshman Kylie Becker hit .385, and freshman Reilly Williams batted .357 and joined McGrath and Weisgram with exhibition-game home runs.
“They’re ballers and are gifted at what they do,” said Meuchel. “They’ve picked up on things really well. I’m proud of how far they’ve come and the way they’ve shown confidence in what they’re able to do.”
And a handful of them will be starting on opening day. That was always going to be the case when those 11 seniors walked off the field for the final time last spring. There were spots to fill and only so many returners coming back.
“It kind of goes back to Year 1, of having to rely on freshmen to step in and fill spots,” said Meuchel. “You hope you can put freshmen in those roles but not have to rely on them a ton, just so they can get some experience. There is going to be some newness in front of them.”
As part of Montana’s nine straight home games in mid-to-late March, the Grizzlies will open their Big Sky schedule by hosting Idaho State. Montana will also get home series against Portland State and Northern Colorado.
That means road series at both Sacramento State and Weber State, the two teams that tied atop the Big Sky standings last year at 14-7. Montana finished fifth at 10-11.
The Hornets won last year’s abbreviated tournament at Ogden, giving the league five different champions through the Big Sky’s first six years of hosting a championship: Portland State in 2013, Southern Utah in 2014, Weber State in 2015 and ’16, Montana in 2017 and Sacramento State in 2018.
None of those teams was head and shoulders above the others who qualified for the tournament. They just happened to get hot at the right time. Indeed, it was only Weber State, in 2016, which both hosted and won the Big Sky tournament.
“Two years ago we got hot at the right time and played pretty confidently at the tournament, and that’s what it takes,” said Meuchel.
With the departure of North Dakota, that leaves just seven teams. Six will make the tournament, which opens on Wednesday, May 8, in Sacramento.
“It will be a grind every weekend. You’re going to have to grind it out, grit it out, and be engaged both physically and mentally,” added Meuchel. “You can’t let weekends pass without being fully engaged. Each win is going to be pretty critical coming to the end.”
While that’s still months and 50-plus games away, the first step toward the postseason will be taken Monday.