Montana Grizzlies secure spot at Big Sky Conference softball tournament

Posted at 9:30 PM, Apr 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-28 12:23:01-04

(Story by Griz Communications)

MISSOULA — Only first-year Northern Colorado coach Ben Garcia knows what was going through his head in the bottom of the sixth on Saturday, with his team tied 2-2 with Montana at Grizzly Softball Field and Cami Sellers coming to the plate with one out and a runner on second.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the same situation had played out in Game 1, in the bottom of the seventh, and Sellers, who is batting .463 in Big Sky Conference games, gave Montana a 6-4 win with a walk-off home run to right-center.

Once again, the game’s outcome was hanging in the balance. A base was open. Sellers already had two hits on the day, five in the series, three of which had gone for extra bases. With only a few moments to weigh his options, the coach made up his mind.

“With certain players you have to make certain choices as a coach. You make your decision and you live with it,” said Griz coach Melanie Meuchel after the game, not long after Sellers hit another no-doubter over the fence in right-center to give her team a 4-2 lead.

It wasn’t a walk-off, but it might as well have been. Montana wasn’t going to lose for the first time in 13 games this season when leading after six innings, not on Senior Day, not this time, not after the program had started its history with four straight losses on that most meaningful of late-season days.

As for Sellers and what was going through her mind at the same time Garcia opted to pitch to Montana’s top hitter?

“I was just thinking I wanted to do it for the seniors, because they’ve put so much into this program,” she said. “I wanted to do what I could to make sure they didn’t leave today with a loss.

“I wasn’t trying to hit a home run, but it was my pitch, so I took it.”

It was more than just a 4-2 victory. It clinched a spot in the six-team Big Sky Conference tournament, which kicks off on Wednesday, May 8, at Sacramento State.

It snapped a 0-4 streak for the program on previous Senior Days and gave Montana wins in its final 11 home games of the season, which gave the Grizzlies, at 16-3, their best home campaign in program history.

And all three wins over the Bears came in games in which the Grizzlies trailed at some point.

“My heart is pretty happy right now, for a lot of people,” said Meuchel, whose team plays a three-game series at Southern Utah next weekend before traveling to Sacramento for the tournament. “Just where we’re at, the way we’re feeling, the way we’re responding and playing hard.

“I’m proud of these players and our staff. There is still more out there. I think we’re in a great spot to keep going.”

Montana left the bases loaded in the first in Game 3, but the Grizzlies would still be the first team to score, when Maygen McGrath hit her fifth home run of the season to lead off the bottom of the second to make it 1-0.

Northern Colorado would go up 2-1 in the fourth with a pair of runs off Montana starter Michaela Hood, who wouldn’t make it through the end of the inning before being replaced by Colleen Driscoll, one of the team’s two seniors, along with Maddy Stensby.

Driscoll would face 11 batters in relief and set down 10 of them, with the other reaching by a walk. It was just what Montana needed to come from behind for the fourth consecutive game and post its fifth straight win, a big-time response after losing three games at Weber State last weekend.

And it was just what Driscoll needed to wipe clean the thoughts of her start in Game 1 on Friday, when she gave up four runs in five innings in an uncharacteristic outing that had three walks, which tied her career high.

“I was a little frustrated with my performance yesterday, so I wanted to really focus on hitting my spots and doing what I could to get the ball on the ground so my teammates could make plays,” Driscoll said.

“I don’t want to say I was trying to do too much yesterday, but I was trying to expand the zone a little too much, and that came back to hurt me. Today I stuck with what’s worked for me all season.”

Montana evened it in the fifth by making Northern Colorado pay for issuing a leadoff walk to Stensby. Anne Mari Petrino sacrificed her to second, Jessica McAlister drove her in with a double down the left-field line.

That led into the sixth and a mirror replay of Friday’s seventh inning in Game 1. Kylie Becker led off with a single up the middle, her fourth hit of the series. She was sacrificed to second by Lexi Knauss, bringing up Sellers with one out and first base open.

Had Garcia been given the opportunity to ask Sellers how she was feeling prior to having Valerie Vidal challenge the Grizzly slugger, Sellers would have told him, “(My confidence level) is way up there. It’s more than it’s ever been,” she said not long after driving Vidal’s 1-0 pitch over the fence.

The two-run lead could have been a dozen runs, with Driscoll pitching the seventh and her teammates ready to give the seniors a proper send-off victory in their final game on their home field.

Groundout, lineout, strikeout. Ball game.

When Montana leaves for Southern Utah on Friday, the Grizzlies will pack for the long haul. They’ll play the Thunderbirds next Saturday and Sunday, then travel to Sacramento, where they hope to be playing deep into the tournament. And beyond.

“It’s great we got a sweep on senior weekend, but I know the whole team wants more,” said Driscoll. “We want to perform at the Big Sky tournament. That’s what our focus is.

“This is great. It builds some momentum. Now we’re ready to go out there and attack.”