GREAT FALLS — It’s no secret that Great Falls has a rich history of success in softball. Between between Great Falls High and CMR, the town has combined for four of the past six Class AA state championships. This year, however, both teams head to the state tournament in Helena under very different circumstances than they’re used to.
The CMR Rustlers are the two-time defending Class AA champs but experienced an up-and-down season. Expectations are always high for the Rustlers, but in a rebuilding year they took the backdoor to state with a road playoff sweep over Billings West. CMR heads to Helena as the No. 4 seed out of the East without the usual pressure of being favored.
“It’s actually really fun, because all we can do now is get better and prove to people that we deserve to be there,” said Rustler head coach Lindsey Gustafson. “Honestly we have nothing to lose. Go put the pressure on other teams. That’s the fun part about this. Go do the best we can, and leave it all on the field and have no regrets.”
This has undoubtedly been a down year by CMR standards, but as coach Gustafson preaches, it’s not how you start but how you finish that counts. Junior pitcher Madi Moore started the season struggling with control but has cut down on walks and played well in the two playoff wins over the West Bears.
“Well, we did have a struggle at the beginning and we all knew that,” Moore said. “But like Gustafson said, it’s a process and now we’re just playing to win and definitely playing with our hearts in it. I think we can definitely get there.”
Meanwhile, Great Falls High is the top seed out of the East and the only undefeated team in Class AA. After placing at state in each of the past three seasons, the Bison have been favored to win it all since the preseason with more returning talent than anyone in the state.
But the team is shaking off the rust after a long layoff. The Bison closed the regular season against Butte more than two weeks ago after earning a bye to state. Coach Mike Coleman has been doing his best to keep the team sharp at practice.
“We just worked them hard,” Coleman said. “But we try to end every practice with a little bit of fun and keep it on a positive note. These girls are all ready to go and they’re not the type to let down.”
Being undefeated comes with a certain amount of pressure.
“A little bit,” said senior Cayley Bushong. “We don’t want to come in lazy. We want to come in prepared and fight for it.”
Coleman’s team has had a few postseason letdowns the past three years, but they’re ready to put it behind them. The Bison have the most dangerous pitching staff in the state featuring likely AA MVP Erin Hocker and a potent offense that’s only gotten better as the season has progressed.
“These girls are really hungry for it,” Coleman said. “In the three years the seniors have been here they’ve finished fourth, third and second. They told me before the first practice that we’re winning a state championship this year. They’ve been working hard enough to deserve it, but we’ve just got to finish it.”
Great Falls High opens the State AA tournament on Thursday at 2 p.m. against Helena High, the No. 4 seed out of the West. The Rustlers will face West No. 1-seed Helena Capital at 4 p.m.