(Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA – The disappointment the competitor in her felt at falling behind 8-0 and losing 12-8 to Utah Valley on Sunday at Grizzly Softball Field in Missoula was no match afterward for the reserved excitement Montana softball coach Melanie Meuchel continues to have for her team.
Asked about Sunday’s outcome in the teams’ series finale, Meuchel tried her best to apply some coach-speak, but it didn’t last.
All she could think about was how her team had battled back to put the potential tying run at the plate in a game that once seemed lost. And how her team took two of three over the weekend on its home field, a special patch of green that only became available to the Grizzlies a few days ago.
And how Montana has now been competing for six weeks with almost every possible disadvantage staring the Grizzlies in the eye. And how her team has yet to blink.
“We’re this far into the season and we just had our first full-speed practice this week,” said Meuchel. “We’re going to get better this week because we’re going to be able to do a lot of things that we haven’t quite done at the speed that we need to do them at.
“I’m excited to go back to work. This team is pretty special. They have a lot of belief, and I think it keeps building and growing. We’re not happy with today’s result, but there were a lot of good things we did this weekend that I’m really proud of. We’re going in a good direction.”
After holding a lead on Saturday for all of maybe 10 minutes — a 2-1 advantage in the fourth in Game 2 that was erased in the bottom half of the inning when the Grizzlies erupted for seven runs — Utah Valley on Sunday looked more like the team that entered the series batting .320 and scoring six runs per game.
Facing Colleen Driscoll, who set down the first 13 Wolverines she faced in Saturday’s opener, Utah Valley chased Montana’s Sunday starter before she had recorded two outs.
After the Grizzlies, already trailing at that point 3-0, turned to Michaela Hood, Utah Valley decided to test the home team with some small ball. Hood was unable to defend a bunt by the first batter she faced. Later in the inning, she fielded another bunt, only to throw it wide of first.
Before Montana had even sent its first batter to the plate, it was 6-0.
“They came out today with an approach that they were going to find ways to get on base,” said Meuchel, whose team won 5-4 and 10-3 on Saturday. “We talked last night about how we needed to be ready for a good start.
“We have a young team and saw some things today for the first time. They made us pay a little bit and put us on our heels.”
After Montana went without a hit in the bottom of the first, Utah Valley got right back to it in the second, scoring twice on three more hits. The Wolverines led 8-0 and thoughts of the run rule came to mind.
Though not to the Grizzlies, apparently. They scored five times on five hits in the bottom of the second, with Cami Sellers doubling to right-center with two outs to drive in two and make it 8-5.
Their lead threatened, the Wolverines kept at it, scoring four more times in the top of the third, with Meuchel eventually replacing Hood with Tristin Achenbach, who would slow the bleeding and allow just two runs over 4 2/3 innings.
But by that time Montana came to bat in the bottom of the third, it was 12-5.
Montana wouldn’t win, but the Grizzlies never stopped coming. They scored twice in the third, when Kylie Becker tripled to right to score Maddy Stensby. Kylie Hayton later doubled in Becker.
In the fifth, Stensby hit her first career home run, a drive to right that landed in the outfield snow just inside the foul pole.
And in the sixth, with Montana trailing 12-8, the Grizzlies loaded the bases with two outs. What once felt improbable now felt, if not probable, at least possible.
Becker, the potential tying run, ripped a ground ball down the third-base line. It was snared and the third baseman, diving to get there first, beat McAlister in a race for the base.
Montana’s 11 hits? They tied the Grizzlies’ season high. And those eight runs? Only surpassed this season by yesterday’s 10. With all of it coming on a day when Montana could have seen its big deficit, shrugged and said, We got two yesterday, so we’re good. You can have this one.
“We dug ourselves a hole today, but I saw a lot of fight from this team, a lot of grit, a lot of determination and a lot of belief that they had a chance,” said Meuchel, whose team batted .299 in the series, with 11 extra-base hits and 23 runs scored.
“If we look at the overall weekend, I was pretty pleased with the way we played.”
Stensby scored three times. Three players, including Stensby, had multiple hits, with Sellers and Hayton both driving in two.
Next up will be Nevada, which is 15-9 and hosts Marist on Tuesday in Reno before traveling to Missoula for a three-game series against Montana.
The Wolf Pack and Grizzlies will play single games at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, a final game at 1 p.m. on Saturday.