(Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA -Delene Colburn, the face of the first era of the Montana softball program, arrived at Grizzly Softball Field on Saturday for her former team’s third and final game against Nevada not knowing what to expect.
She started the first 220 games in program history, every game between 2015 and last spring, and knew the program inside and out, but Saturday was her first time seeing this year’s team in person.
She watched from her home in Auburn, Wash., as Montana, with a roster filled mostly with names she did not recognize, went 5-20 through its five-weekend tournament schedule, limping at the end.
Then Colburn saw that the Grizzlies took two of three last weekend against Utah Valley and the first two in this week’s series against the Wolf Pack.
When she took her seat on Saturday, she did so not knowing what kind of game or what kind of team she would see.
After Montana won for the fifth time in six games, 4-3 on a walk-off wild pitch in the bottom of the seventh with the bases loaded, she couldn’t help but be impressed.
But what surprised and thrilled her wasn’t just the win. It was what she saw from the team. Turns out she left it in good hands.
“They are playing and talking like a veteran team,” she said. “They look like they’ve been playing together for a lot longer than just a few months. They are so young, but they are playing like a veteran team. It’s so fun watching them play.”
For all the hardships of the season’s first six weeks, of sicknesses that took their toll on an already thin roster, of a winter that cost the team precious practice opportunities, what Colburn saw on Saturday was all the validation coach Melanie Meuchel needed that her team had come out of it just fine.
“That’s so good and so comforting to hear. This is the point we’ve worked really hard at trying to get to,” she said. “It was always about trying to find ways to fulfill what we needed to do to become a complete team.”
Nevada, which entered the series with a 17-9 record and six wins in its previous seven games, would likely agree after getting swept in the three-game series, each by a single run, the last two games in walk-off fashion: Montana is a team growing in confidence with each dramatic outcome.
In Thursday’s 5-4 victory, Montana closed it out in the top of the seventh, when Nevada had the potential tying run on base. In Friday’s 6-5 win, the Grizzlies twice rallied from deficits and won it with a walk-off double in the bottom of the seventh.
On Saturday the teams once again had fans on the edge of their seats in the seventh. After getting out of a one-on, one-out jam in the top half of the inning, Montana wasted no time putting the pressure on the Wolf Pack.
Cami Sellers, who had her fourth multiple-hit game in Montana’s last seven, doubled to deep left field to lead off the inning.
Swinging her own hot bat, Maygen McGrath sent one to the warning track in left-center one pitch later. The fly ball was dropped for an error, but it was deep enough that Sellers would have advanced to third even without the miscue.
With runners on second and third and nobody out, Nevada semi-intentionally walked Jessica McAlister on four pitches to load the bases.
Kali Sargent got a huge strikeout for the inning’s first out, but her first pitch to pinch-hitter Reilly Williams landed in front of the plate and got away from the catcher, far enough away that Sellers was able to race home for the winning run on the wild pitch without a play being made on her.
“It feels really good to compete in close games,” said Meuchel, whose team opens league next weekend with a home series against Idaho State. “It’s good to watch their confidence and see that they believe that we’re in it at all times right now.
“We were so close in so many ways (before this home stand), but we weren’t seeing that in our outcomes. They’re really starting to take steps forward at owning the team and knowing what they want from this team. They’re starting to step up.”
Tristin Achenbach, who was so effective against Nevada on Thursday, got the start on Saturday and was given a 2-0 lead after the first inning, when the Grizzlies turned four straight hits into a 2-0 lead.
McGrath had an RBI double to open the scoring. McAlister followed with an infield single that drove in another run.
Montana went up 3-1 in the bottom of the second on a bases-loaded RBI fielder’s choice from Sellers.
After Nevada tied it in the fifth off Achenbach, opening the inning as the Wolf Pack did with a double and run-scoring single up the middle, Meuchel called on Maddy Stensby, who hadn’t pitched since Montana faced North Dakota in Fresno back on March 10.
She was good. Really good. She finished off three complete innings on 38 pitches, allowing two singles while striking out three to pick up her first win of the season after dropping her first five decisions.
“I’m going to do whatever Mel wants to do for the team. As a pitcher, you always have to be ready to go out there and do your best,” said Stensby, who batted .368 as the team’s designated player between pitching appearance.
“That keeps me in it when I don’t pitch, to know I’m helping the team in some aspect. When I hit, I at least feel like I can add some offense.”
After Stensby finished off Nevada in the top of the seventh with a three-pitch strikeout, it was more end-game dramatics by Montana.
The team survived playing 25 straight games on the road over five weekends in California and New Mexico, it is over its sicknesses, it has access to its field now on a full-time basis and the start of its Big Sky Conference schedule is a week away.
“Everything feels like it’s on our side right now,” said Meuchel. “I’m proud of their determination to hang on through what was a grind.
“I thought we learned something out of last weekend’s three-game series and got better because of it. And we’ll take something from this series as well. I’m looking forward to competing in the Big Sky with this team.”
Montana will host Idaho State in a doubleheader next Saturday beginning at 1 p.m. The teams will play a third game on Sunday, also at 1 p.m.