(Story by Griz Communications)
LAS CRUCES, N.M. — It’s not often a softball team goes 0-2 on the day and manages to leave its coach one percent disappointed and 99 percent giddy, but that was the case for Montana and Melanie Meuchel on Friday as the Grizzlies opened play at the Troy Cox Classic in Las Cruces, N.M.
Montana lost 6-5 to San Jose State, then 7-6 to Bradley, and those results are what will go on the permanent record. But it’s what happened within that four-hour block of time that put such a hop in Meuchel’s step afterwards.
She knows that if what she saw on Friday becomes a characteristic of her second team, something special might be brewing.
The Grizzlies (1-6) trailed by five runs in both games. And in both they didn’t just fight back. They had the tying run in scoring position when the final out was made, with big hit after big hit peppering the late-game play-by-play in both.
“This team has got fight and is showing a lot of grit. When we put all three pieces together, we’re going to be pretty good,” Meuchel said. “We’re so close, and I’m excited for it. You can feel it.”
On a day when the pitching — one of those three pieces — wasn’t locked in, the Grizzlies’ bats were. Montana hit .333 over two games and had 10 — yes, 10 — extra-base hits among the 21 it pounded out over 14 innings of at-bats.
Last season Montana had 63 extra-base hits. For the season. Over 55 games.
The Grizzlies’ second-year head coach knows the pitching will come around. When it pairs up with that kind of raking? It’s why Meuchel says she can feel it.
“We’re hungry for wins. You’re always hungry for an outcome in your favor, but we’re starting to see the work we’re putting in and the process starting to pay off. It’s hard to take the losses, but there is a process to it,” she said.
Montana had eight doubles on Friday, three each by Lexi Knauss and Cami Sellers, and its first two home runs of the season.
Jessica McAlister went yard in the opener, bringing Montana within a run in the seventh with a two-run shot, the second home run of her career.
Brooklyn Weisgram, one of the Grizzlies’ precocious freshmen, had her first in the bottom of the third against Bradley, a three-run shot that took a big bite out of what had been an early 6-1 lead for the Braves.
“The freshmen are starting to settle. We still have some room to grow, but they’re showing they can play at this level,” said Meuchel. “They’re starting to see that and starting to get a little more confidence and comfort.”
Montana trailed San Jose State in the opening game of the tournament by five runs before the Grizzlies had even collected their third hit of the game.
But with two outs and nobody on in the top of the fifth, a glimpse at what was to come: Knauss with a double. Sellers with a single. Maddy Stensby with a single. McAlister with a single. It was game on.
The Spartans would add a sixth run in the bottom of the sixth, and it would prove to be big.
After Stensby opened the top of the seventh with a walk, McAlister brought both of them around with a one-out home run to left that made it 6-5.
And the Grizzlies kept coming, with Kylie Hayton doubling to left-center with two outs, putting the potential tying run in scoring position. A ground out ended the game.
Stensby got the start and lasted just two innings, though two of the three runs she gave up were unearned, after a two-out error in the first allowed two runs to score.
In the second game, starter Colleen Driscoll would make it just 2 1/3, with five earned runs allowed.
“We worked a little too much through the zone today,” said Meuchel. “We probably could have expanded the zone a little bit.
“And it’s New Mexico. It’s pretty windy here and the ball flies. Anything that’s elevated can get out.”
Montana got on the board earlier against Bradley, cutting the Braves’ lead to 2-1 in the bottom of the second, when Knauss doubled to right-center to drive in Weisgram, who got things going with a two-out walk.
But Bradley would homer three times in the third, leading to four runs. Two came off Driscoll, one-off Tristin Achenbach in relief.
The Grizzlies had an answer in the bottom half of the inning. Hayton drove in one with a two-out single. Weisgram followed with her three-run shot to make it 6-5.
Trailing 7-5 entering the bottom of the sixth, the top part of the lineup got it done again. Batting leadoff, Knauss, who has a hit in all seven games this season, doubled to put runners in scoring position for Sellers, who made it 7-6 with a double of her own.
There were still two runners in scoring position with one out. It’s when the process the Grizzlies are undertaking was revealed and that Montana is still in the early stages of it. Two freshmen came to the plate, both struck out.
It’s the good and bad of Montana right now. For all the threatening the Grizzlies did, they also left 18 runners stranded in the two games.
They would leave one more in the bottom of the seventh, after McAlister, coming on as a pinch hitter, came through with a two-out double.
Bradley wanted nothing to do with Weisgram, who walked on five pitches, putting the winning run on base. The game ended on a fly out.
“There was a point last weekend when I saw a little more give-up than I’ve ever seen in this team. We talked about it and what the image of Montana Softball is and what we pride ourselves in,” said Meuchel.
“Ever since then, we’ve dug in and shown we’ll fight. We’re showing a lot of grit and character. I don’t want to have to claw our way from behind all the time, but I like the fight. I feel good. I feel like it’s going to break through.”
Montana will get tested on Saturday, facing a pair of teams that made the NCAA tournament last season. The Grizzlies will play Texas State at 9 a.m., New Mexico State at 1:30 p.m.
Montana will conclude the tournament on Sunday with a second game against Texas State at 9 a.m.