(Editor’s note: Story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA — Morgan Johnson always looked the part. That was never the issue. Coming out of Missoula’s Big Sky High, she had a powerful swing that threatened to send every pitch she saw on a window-seeking trajectory over South Avenue.
She just needed an opportunity.
Playing her first two seasons, in 2017 and ’18, on a team loaded with upperclassmen, Johnson saw action in just 53 games. In 38 of those she was limited to a single at-bat, the life of a pinch-hitter.
“She was in a position in which she didn’t have a lot of opportunities. When she did, it was always a high-pressure situation, usually with runners on base when we were looking for a critical hit,” says her coach, Melanie Meuchel.
Johnson entered this year, her junior season, with seven career hits.
She had more than that in just three games over the weekend, going 8 for 11 with three home runs in Montana’s sweep at Southern Utah that earned the Grizzlies the No. 3 seed for this week’s Big Sky Conference Championship at Sacramento State.
That performance earned Johnson Big Sky Player of the Week honors, which was matched by Tristin Achenbach, who was named Pitcher of the Week after going 2-0 at Southern Utah.
“I’m really proud of the way Morgan has grinded over the course of time and is finally getting paid back,” said Meuchel.
Johnson, still waiting for her chance even as a junior, opened the 2019 season with four hits in 29 at-bats through the team’s first 31 games.
Then Carroll paid a visit to Grizzly Softball Field on April 16. In Game 2 of the doubleheader, Johnson hit a home run, the first of her career. Then she hit another. And the full Johnson was unleashed.
In Montana’s last dozen games, of which the Grizzlies have won nine, Johnson is batting .467, which ranks behind only Cami Sellers’ .486.
She has a team-high six home runs in those 12 games, nine extra-base hits. Her 13 RBIs match Sellers for the team lead. Her 1.200 slugging percentage is something not even Sellers, at .971, approaches.
“She’s always had a good eye at the plate and has always been able to get barrel to ball. It was just being able to drive it,” says Meuchel.
“She has started to find a groove of who she is and how she swings. I would say in the last month we’ve started to see it on a pretty consistent basis. The success she was having at practice was something we needed to start incorporating into the lineup.”
Batting as the designated player in all three games at Southern Utah, in the No. 4 spot, behind Sellers and ahead of Jessica McAlister, Johnson was a series-long thorn on the Thunderbirds’ side.
She went 2 for 3 in Game 1, then 2 for 3 again in Game 2 on Saturday, with a home run in both, games Montana won 6-4 and 15-7.
After Montana fell behind 4-0 in Game 3 on Sunday, Johnson sparked the Grizzlies’ comeback, hitting a two-run home run in the top of the third to get Montana on the scoreboard and send them to a 10-6 victory.
Johnson would add three singles, giving her the team’s third four-hit game of the season.
She had a pair of RBIs and scored two times in all three games.
“She really fulfilled that role,” said Meuchel. “It allows us to juggle our lineup a little bit more. It gives us more depth on the offensive side.”
Montana swept Southern Utah mainly because of its offense. The Grizzlies, who scored 31 runs, batted .461 in the series and out-hit the Thunderbirds 47-24.
But the hitter-friendly park in windy Cedar City, where innocent pop-ups routinely become threats to clear the fence, requires a pitcher with some resolve.
She earned the win in Game 1 after coming on in relief in a 6-4 game and keeping the Thunderbirds off the scoreboard over the final 3 2/3 innings, giving up just three hits.
She got the start in Game 3 and after allowing four runs in the bottom of the first, limited Southern Utah to two runs and four hits over the final six innings, which allowed Montana to rally for the victory.
“That showed her growth as a Division I pitcher, her ability to do what she needs to on the mound,” said Meuchel.
“She has stepped up and had some great games when she was 100 percent in control and then she’s had others when she hasn’t, and she’s found ways to finish off hitters and do what she’s needed to do to help our team.”
Achenbach, who set a Big Sky record last month with 16 strikeouts against Carroll, is 7-6 this season with a 3.93 ERA. She has 80 strikeouts in 89 innings of work.
“Tristin is one of the hardest-working individuals I’ve ever been around,” said Meuchel. “She’s never satisfied or content with any previous successes she’s had. She wants to be the best she can be each and every day.”
It’s the first Big Sky accolade for either player in their careers. Maygen McGrath and Cami Sellers previously this season were named Player of the Week, Colleen Driscoll Pitcher of the Week.
No. 3 Montana opens the Big Sky Conference Championship against No. 6 Northern Colorado at 12:30 p.m. (MT) on Wednesday.