(Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA – The Montana softball team rallied not just once on Friday but twice to come through with a walk-off 6-5 victory over Nevada at Grizzly Softball Field in Missoula.
The Grizzlies, who have won four of their last five, fell behind 2-0 in the first and 5-4 in the fifth before tying it in the sixth with a sacrifice fly and winning it in the seventh on a Lexi Knauss walk-off double.
Montana will try for the series sweep on Saturday.
“They have a lot of confidence in each other right now, and it’s growing,” said coach Melanie Meuchel. “I knew it would take a little bit of time this season because everything was so new for people.
“It’s really exciting to watch them start to step up and take ownership and take pride in this team and this program.”
It was Knauss’s double to left-center, her first extra-base hit since March 8, that won it for the Grizzlies by scoring Anne Mari Petrino from first, but it was her at-bat two innings before that set Knauss up for her end-game dramatics.
Her single down the left-field line in the bottom of the fifth didn’t lead to anything, but it put an end to a 3-for-28 slump that began at Fresno State’s tournament and continued into the current home stand.
“It’s no secret I’ve been struggling the last couple series,” she said. “After the hit I had (in the fifth), I was like, okay, I’m fine, I’m in a rhythm, so I felt good going into that at-bat.”
Petrino, who’s found a home in the No. 9 spot in the order, came to bat in the seventh with one out and nobody on. She was already 3 for 3 on the day.
She only has three extra-base hits for her career — two doubles and a triple — so she knew she wasn’t going to end it with a single swing. She kept it simple and dropped one into left-center for the first four-hit game of her career.
“I know my role. My job is to get on base. I didn’t go up there trying to do anything out of my comfort zone,” said Petrino, whose .105 batting average going into the game would seem to hint at a player struggling to find a groove. Statistics don’t always tell the entire story.
“My stats are not great right now, but I’ve been having a lot of good at-bats. I’ve been seeing the ball really well all year. I’ve just been hitting it to people. I knew I was going to start finding the holes. It just took a little longer than I wanted it to.”
And so the stage was set. Score tied 5-5, the potential winning run on first base, one out. It was a hero’s moment, which is not at all how Knauss looked at it as she walked to the plate.
She knew Brooklyn Weisgram, who had a two-run home run in the first, and Cami Sellers, who had her eighth multiple-hit game of the season on Friday, were waiting behind her.
“I wasn’t even thinking of it as that kind of situation,” Knauss said. “I knew whatever I did, there would be someone behind me who would do the job.”
All Weisgram and Sellers would need to do was start the rush to the plate to celebrate the win after Knauss drove one to the fence in left-center and Petrino scored all the way from first.
The throw from the cutoff was on target but didn’t arrive until Petrino was sliding across the plate.
“I know Mel, so I kind of had a feeling she was going to send me,” said Petrino. “She almost ran with me.”
But to focus only on the game’s final play would be to overlook all the key moments that led up to it.
After Nevada jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first with an over-the-scoreboard home run off Montana starter Michaela Hood, Weisgram answered right back in the bottom half of the inning, clearing the fence in left-center that drove in Knauss, who had opened the inning with a walk.
It was Weisgram’s second home run of the season, her first since Feb. 15.
The Grizzlies went up 3-2 later in the first on an infield error and scored again to make it 4-2 when Petrino singled through the right side with the bases loaded.
That kind of response was big for Meuchel. Even better: putting Nevada down in order in the top of the second after taking the lead.
“They score off us early, we come back with it. It’s been a while since we put a zero on the backside of our score,” she said.
“That was exciting. That was a victory for us. We’re starting to take some of those victories that we’ve focused on and we’re starting to put it together a little bit. We’re making steps forward in areas where maybe early in the season we were trying to force a few things.”
Montana finished with a season-high 13 hits, but they were stuck on four runs until the sixth largely because the Grizzlies left 11 runners on base through the first five innings.
That allowed the Wolf Pack to inch their way back into it. They made it 4-3 in the third on an infield single, tied it in the fourth on a Montana infield error and retook the lead, 5-4, in the fifth on a sacrifice fly.
Montana left the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth, and Nevada threatened to expand on its lead in the sixth, putting two on with one out against Hood.
With the game at a crucial spot, Meuchel went to Colleen Driscoll, and the senior came through, getting a strikeout, then snagging a line drive that was headed back up the middle to put down the threat.
Knauss and Petrino weren’t the only players to come out of the tournament portion of the team’s schedule locked in a struggle.
Freshman Maygen McGrath, a Big Sky Conference Player of the Week in February who was at one point batting .455, entered the Nevada series with just four hits in Montana’s previous 13 games.
She went 2 for 4 in Thursday’s win, with two doubles. She had a single in the first, then led off the sixth with a double down the right-field line on Friday.
“I got super sick (at the Stanford tournament), so I’ve been trying to come back from that and fight for my team,” said McGrath. “A lot of it is a mindset. I’m trying to have more positive energy in my head and know that I’m here for a reason and that I can do it.”
It was a textbook approach to evening the score at 5-5. Jessica McAlister lined out to right, which allowed McGrath to tag up and advance to third. The next batter, Maddy Stensby, flew out to deep center, a sacrifice fly that scored McGrath.
“We talk about taking pride in the small things,” said Meuchel. “It’s not always going to be a home run. It’s not always going to be a hit off the fence.
“We’ve got to be able to have a complete offense and work a complete offense.”
Nevada led off the top of the seventh with a single up the middle, but Driscoll worked her way through it, getting the lead runner at second for the first two outs. A groundout to second sent the game into the bottom of the seventh tied.
Not to be overlooked in those heated moments: a small but vocal group of fans who urged the home team on.
“The fans were amazing today,” said Meuchel. “They were loud. I think they really pushed us forward and inspired our players.”
After Kylie Hayton led off the bottom of the seventh with a groundout, it was Petrino with a single, Knauss with a double and Montana with a second consecutive victory.
“I feel so good (about this team),” said Knauss. “Even when we’re down, there is never anything negative coming out of anybody’s mouth.
“It’s exciting coming to the field knowing you have people behind and beside you that are willing to do whatever it takes to win every single game.”
Montana and Nevada will play the series finale on Saturday starting at 1 p.m.