(Editor’s note: Story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA — Montana swept a doubleheader against Carroll on Tuesday afternoon at Grizzly Softball Field in Missoula on day when some individual performances took on as much significance as the results of the games.
Tristin Achenbach set a new Big Sky Conference record when she struck out 16 of the 21 batters she faced in Game 1.
In Game 2, Morgan Johnson hit her first career home run in the fifth. An inning later the junior did it again, this time to right-center.
And Cami Sellers had at least one hit in both games to extend her hitting streak to 15, the second longest in program history behind Bethany Olea’s 17 from 2017.
In the end, Montana extended its winning streak to five games with 5-1 and 7-2 victories against an opponent that will always be joined at the hip with the Grizzlies, their histories in lockstep.
“I respect the heck out of Carroll, with what they’ve done with both of us starting our programs at the same time,” said UM coach Melanie Meuchel.
“I believe in what (Carroll coach) Aaron Jackson and his staff are doing over there. They have good athletes who like to compete. Every time we face them, it’s going to be a good game.”
So it was no surprise to Meuchel that her team trailed 1-0 going into the bottom of the fifth in Game 1 and 2-1 entering the bottom of the fifth in Game 2.
But that’s not to say she was pleased with it.
Her team had the bases loaded in the second inning with one out in the opener and failed to bring a runner home, three of nine runners left on base across the doubleheader.
Defensively, a Montana error allowed the Saints to score an unearned run off Achenbach in Game 1. Three errors in the top of the fourth led to both Carroll runs in Game 2.
“We need to take care of the ball a little bit more, both offensively and defensively,” said Meuchel. “There were opportunities when we could have broken some things open.
“I’m proud of the way we competed and got things done at the end. To have a mid-week, competitive environment made us a little bit better today. We found a way to step up and finish the games off.”
Achenbach started Game 2 on Saturday in Montana’s home series against Portland State and took a no-decision. She was relieved in the top of the fifth in a game the Grizzlies would rally to win 11-7 with a nine-run sixth inning.
On Tuesday, she struck out nine of the first 10 batters she faced.
“I wasn’t really satisfied with my performance from this past weekend, so I kind of had a little chip on my shoulder. I wanted to come out and prove I was meant to be here,” said Achenbach.
She gave up an unearned run in the fourth following an infield error and allowed a runner to reach third with one out in the fifth and her team trailing 1-0.
She got out of the jam with a pair of strikeouts, then added three more in the sixth, after her team had scored five runs in the bottom of the fifth.
Achenbach ended the game with a three-pitch strikeout in the top of the seventh, which gave her No. 16 and broke the previous Big Sky record of 15, set by Sacramento State’s Caitlin Brooks against North Dakota in 2015.
Seventy-three of her 103 pitches were strikes; she faced just 25 batters, four over the minimum.
“She wanted to dominate today. She wanted to pound the zone. From Pitch 1, she was Tristin Achenbach,” said Meuchel. “She found the pitches she throws very well and just hammered the zone.
“Maybe two at-bats got big on her, but in everything else she had 100 percent control in what she was doing. It was exciting to watch her master it today.”
Even so, she was in line for the loss unless her teammates could finally do some damage against Carroll starter Tess Eaton.
That would come in the fifth, when Maddy Stensby tripled to right-center to drive in what would be the winning runs.
Katie Pippel added an RBI double later in the fifth, and she scored when Jessica McAlister knocked her second home run of the season over the fence in left to make it 5-1.
“We were a little bit out of our element at the plate early and really didn’t have quality at-bats for a while,” said Meuchel. “Then we started to grind and put some at-bats together. We had a couple very big hits that started some momentum for us.”
Achenbach improved to 4-5 with the win.
Montana faced Allison Williams in Game 2 and had just as much trouble in the early innings. Everyone, that is, outside of Kylie Becker, who rocked her first home run to left in the bottom of the second to give the Grizzlies a 1-0 lead.
She would later add a two-run double, giving her the team’s second-hottest bat behind Sellers’. Becker has gone 8 for 13 during Montana’s five-game winning streak.
But Carroll would use three errors by the Grizzlies in the top of the fourth to grab a 2-1 lead and the Saints would take that advantage into the bottom of the fifth.
That’s when Johnson did something that would bring tears to her coach’s eyes.
With one out and the bases empty, Johnson tied it with a blast to left-center that traveled 262 feet off Williams, a former travel-ball teammate (and battery-mate) of Johnson’s.
“I’ve played against Ali since 10U and she’s also been on my travel team, so I’ve seen her for a very long time,” said Johnson. “I used to catch her, so I can pretty much read what she’s going to pitch off her hand.”
Lexi Knauss made it 3-2 with an RBI single in the fifth, Becker made it 5-2 in the sixth with her two-run double. She was on second when Johnson came up and launched one 253 feet to right-center off Williams that made it 7-2.
Johnson entered the day with no home runs as a Grizzly. She’ll end her day with two.
“I cried. It’s emotional when you watch someone grind every single day to be good at what they do,” said Meuchel. “Sometimes it takes a little bit longer to get paid back.
“It made my heart happy to see her get paid back a little bit today.”
Maddy Stensby got the start in Game 2 and threw her own impressive complete game. She struck out 11 while allowing five hits to pick up her fourth win of the season.
Montana will take its five-game winning streak on the road later this week for a three-game series against Big Sky Conference leader Weber State in Ogden, Utah.
The teams will play a doubleheader on Friday starting at 2 p.m. and a single game on Saturday at noon.