(University of Montana Media Release)
MISSOULA -- Sarah O’Brien, who spent the last nine seasons either playing or coaching the sport in the state of Texas, has joined the Montana softball program as its assistant coach.
O’Brien spent last season as a volunteer assistant at Houston. The Cougars went 39-19, advanced to the NCAA tournament in May and won a pair of games at the Austin Regional.
She began her coaching career at Texas Lutheran, a Division III power in Seguin. In her six seasons on Wade Wilson’s staff, from 2013-18, the Bulldogs went 223-39.
O’Brien interviewed for the assistant position at Montana in the fall of 2017, an opening created when Melanie Meuchel was elevated to head coach.
That search ended with the hiring of Betsy Westermann. When it came time to fill that position again, when the 2019 season reached its end, O’Brien was on Meuchel’s shortlist.
“There are always people who stand out and stay on your mind should the position ever open up again. I was very happy we were able to get a candidate like Sarah,” said Meuchel, who retains her staff from last season, with graduate assistant Maggie Frezzotti and volunteer assistant Dennis Meuchel.
“She brings a good coaching background. She has a lot of knowledge, a lot of passion for making our players better. I’m looking forward to getting our whole staff together. I’m excited for all the skill sets each of our coaches has and will be able to give our student-athletes to be successful.”
Raised in Kennewick, Wash., O’Brien thought her competitive softball career had played out after graduating from Kamiakin High in 2008.
She spent one semester at Washington State, subsisting on club softball, until a desire to return to the game brought her to Columbia Basin College, located across the Columbia from Kennewick in Pasco.
“I was a normal college student for six months, then I said, I can’t do this. I missed the game. I missed the competition,” she said.
Then Texas beckoned. After two seasons at Columbia Basin, the outfielder packed up her car and pointed it toward San Antonio and Incarnate Word, then an NCAA Division II program.
“I heard everything is bigger and better there, so why not try it out? I’d never been to Texas, but I wanted to continue playing softball,” O’Brien said.
She batted .359 as a junior in 2011 and was voted second-team All-Lone Star Conference. She made the league’s all-tournament team as a senior in 2012 when the Cardinals won the conference tournament and advanced to the NCAA South Central Regional.
That was as a player. What put her on the professional path she is still traveling was coach Todd Bradley’s decision to add Jessica Clack to his staff for the 2010-11 season.
O’Brien hasn’t been the same since. She saw in Clack what she wanted to become.
O’Brien was an interdisciplinary studies major, but Clack, without even trying, showed O’Brien how her passion for the sport might be put to another use once her playing days were over.
“I loved her energy and her passion for us as players. It was contagious. She made you want to be better and play your very best,” said O’Brien.
“You wanted to be better because she genuinely cared about you and wanted you to succeed. I looked at her and said, That’s the coach I want to be, the coach who will be there for you but also push you to your limits.”
She got her break into coaching when she bumped into Wilson while working a softball camp at Incarnate Word. The two schools are separated by just 35 miles of Texas highway.
He had an opening, she had an interest. They would work together for six seasons, with the Bulldogs making the NCAA Division III national tournament five times, going 43-5 in 2016, 39-3 in 2018.
It was prior to that three-loss season, in the fall of 2017, when Meuchel was hired. Outgoing coach Jamie Pinkerton, who went to Iowa State, urged O’Brien to apply for the open assistant position.
Missoula is still a five-hour drive from the Tri-Cities, but that’s better than planning weeks or months in advance for plane tickets and rental cars, just to make it back home.
“Getting back to the Pacific Northwest was always the goal. I just happened to get my opportunity in Texas, so that is where I was going to stay. But it was always the goal to get home,” said O’Brien.
The first time she interviewed, it didn’t work out. But she had left an impression, and Montana never left her mind either.
“Mel and I had some great conversations. I really liked her vision. I really liked what she wanted to create here, but it didn’t work out,” O’Brien said.
She coached at Texas Lutheran the following spring, a memorable season that began 39-1 and was ended by Texas-Tyler in the Division III national tournament.
She moved east to Houston for the 2019 season, her first taste of Division I softball. That season was put to an end by the right arm of Texas pitcher Miranda Elish in the national tournament.
Finally, the timing was right for both Montana and O’Brien. But it wasn’t just a move closer to home. She found in Meuchel a coach whose philosophies she can get behind 100 percent.
“I love what Mel is doing and the culture she’s building. She believes in the person first, the player second, that they are people, not just a uniform number,” said O’Brien.
“That’s big for me, because we get to be around incredible people who happen to be really good at softball.”
Pinkerton started the program. One of his first decisions was to bring Meuchel, a Missoula native and Griz since birth, into the program as his assistant to help lay the foundation for a team that would begin playing in 2015.
By Year 2, in 2016, Montana was competing in the Big Sky Conference tournament. A year later, the Grizzlies were in Seattle for the 2017 NCAA tournament.
After that season, Iowa State came calling on Pinkerton. Meuchel, who has been in the dugout for all 276 games in the program’s short history, was the natural choice to replace him.
“I think they have something special here. Mel is such a genuine person. She cares about this city and school, and she loves the Griz. I can get behind that, because there is nothing fake about it,” said O’Brien.
How the specific coaching assignments within the staff work out has yet to be determined. O’Brien played in the outfield, but she’s coached infielders as well.
She’s good with whatever she’s tasked with. As long as she’s around softball, she’s living her dream.
“This is my passion. I love the game. I love coaching the game. I love kids and making them better athletes and better people,” she said.
“I feel like I’ve never worked a day in my life because of what I get to do. I come to work and get to pursue my passion. I love that.”
She’s already fallen for Missoula and the support she feels for Grizzly athletics.
When she steps out of her office and walks across campus, she feels like she’s part of a greater team, one that’s welcoming, supportive. She feels the same thing when she is out in her new hometown.
“Missoula is such a community and they love their Griz. That family aspect is such a big deal to me,” O’Brien said.
Everything is bigger and better in Texas, right? At least that’s the saying. The former claim is up to interpretation, depending on what’s being measured.
The latter? O’Brien, who has some authority on the subject given her background, is seeing things differently these days.
“You fall in love with places and the people who are there. I went back down to Texas recently. The people are still great, but it wasn’t as pretty as I remember,” she said.
“Then I remembered I’m living in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.” And getting to pursue her passion at the same time. It’s a good life these days for Sarah O’Brien.