BELGRADE — After winning three consecutive Class A state softball championships at the Class A level, the Belgrade Panthers made it four straight by defeating the Billings Senior Broncs in the State AA championship game last week to finish the Panthers' first season in Class AA.
It was capped off as third baseman Maddie Tomasetti caught a flyout to end the game.
“I have total faith that she was going to catch it and I was super pumped," said Panthers junior pitcher Arin Eaton, who pitched a complete game and only gave up two earned runs in the championship. "I was running over to her before she even caught the ball and I’m so proud of her.”
Tomasetti, the Panthers' senior clean-up hitter, was a crucial part of the Panthers' success. She finished the year with a batting average of .410 and an OPS of 1.238. Eaton was happy to send her and the five other seniors out on top.
“I’m really sad to see the seniors go, but I’m really pumped we got to win a championship for them,” she said.
The team had come a long way since early in the season when doubt crept in some players' minds about jumping from Class A to AA.
“It means the world," Eaton said. "We started off, we didn’t really have confidence. We’re just like, ‘We’re moving up. Are we able to compete with these girls?’ Then over time, we’re just like, ‘We can compete with them, we can do this.’ That’s what really drove us.”
The Panthers were swept by Billings Senior in the regular season but came out on top when it mattered most, beating the Broncs in the Eastern AA divisional tournament and then winning two out of three times in the state tournament, including 5-3 in the title game after losing to Senior 13-3 the game before.
“I think we just got our confidence up," Eaton said. "We beat Senior a couple weeks ago and we knew that we could beat them again.”
A lot of the success is because of the Panthers' players, but one can't underestimate what first-year head coach Joey Roberts and his staff meant to Belgrade.
“We just turned a new page," said senior outfielder Elizabeth Ybarra on how the team overcame losing 13-3 to Senior the game before the championship. "(Roberts) always says whatever happens in the past we can’t change it. Just work on what you made mistakes on and move on.”
The Panthers had the grueling task of facing one of Montana’s best high school pitchers, Broncs junior Kennedy Venner, every time they faced off against Senior this season.
“We knew exactly when there was a spin on the ball," said Ybarra. "It’d be coming up and we really played out and got with her and got our timing down, and it was just quick to the bat and we would get it.”
Ybarra moved to Belgrade last year, but she was excited to help her team keep the Panthers' state title streak alive.
“Just transferring here I knew the record we had on our shoulder and coming in we had a lot of doubt, but I think we proved everyone wrong that we could and we’re here to stay,” she said.
The Panthers celebrate their State AA title with a firetruck parade around Belgrade at 11:30 a.m on Thursday.