(Editor's note: University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA -- The Montana softball team opened its fall exhibition schedule on Sunday afternoon with 15-0 and 16-1 seven-inning victories over Carroll at Grizzly Softball Field in Missoula.
Tristin Achenbach and freshman Ashley Ward struck out 12 batters in Game 1. In Game 2, Michaela Hood, Achenbach and Ward held the Saints to one hit.
Montana batted .400 in the two games, pounding out 15 extra-base hits, with home runs coming from Morgan Johnson, Brooklyn Weisgram and Ward, who was a revelation in her collegiate debut.
The Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior, Ward struck out eight in five innings over the two games, with just two hits allowed.
“I really liked my performance today. I thought it was really good,” she said. “I always think there is something I can do better. I could have hit spots better, but the team really backed me up. They helped me look a lot better.”
Making her first appearance at the plate as a Grizzly in the bottom of the fifth in Game 2, Ward ripped the first pitch she saw inside the foul pole in right. She added a sharply hit single up the middle in the seventh to finish 2 for 2.
“(Playing my first games for Montana) was kind of surreal, so I just tried to think of it as any other game. I didn’t want to make myself nervous,” she added.
Games against Carroll over the years -- the programs started at the same time, playing their first season in 2015 -- have been mostly competitive, whether the games have come in the fall or during the spring.
It was just two falls ago that Carroll celebrated a 1-0 victory over Montana on Grizzly Softball Field, a performance largely authored by pitcher Allison Williams, who got the start in Game 1 on Sunday.
Third-year Montana coach Melanie Meuchel has spent the fall talking about her team not starting over this year as much as it has simply picked up where last year’s squad, of mostly the same players, left off.
Sunday could have been April for as dialed in as the Grizzlies looked from the opening pitch.
They scored in the bottom of the first when Cami Sellers, who went 6 for 9 in the two games, with five extra-base hits, eight RBIs and five runs scored, doubled in freshman Kendall Curtis, who kicked off Montana’s 32-hit attack with a single.
Then came the second inning, when Montana put up 10 runs. Johnson had a two-run home run in the inning. Two batters later Brooklyn Weisgram did the same thing.
Montana has put up big numbers before in the fall. Never has it come against an established program like Carroll.
“I feel really good about where this team is. Really from the first day of practice, they have come with a very competitive drive and a drive to get better each day,” said Meuchel.
“I thought they set the bar pretty high in our first fall practice. I knew at that time we could keep pushing and challenging them. It’s something we’re doing every day, challenging each other to be better.”
Achenbach, who struck out 16 Carroll batters in April to set a Big Sky Conference record, had all the support she needed after just one run had been scored.
She worked a perfect four innings: 12 batters faced, 12 batters set down, eight by strikeout. Ward pitched the final three shutout innings.
They followed Hood in Game 2 after she threw the first four innings. Achenbach pitched the fifth, Ward the sixth and seventh.
“I thought all our pitchers attacked the zone. They controlled the zone and counts, and I thought they pitched fearlessly,” said Meuchel.
Montana added three runs in the third in Game 1, one in the sixth, as 10 of the 12 Grizzlies who made a plate appearance had at least one hit.
Katie Pippel drove in four in the opener, with a two-run single in the second, a two-run double in the third. She finished the day batting .714, going 5 for 7, with six driven in and five runs scored.
Carroll used a hit-by-pitch, double, ground-out sequence to grab its only lead of the day, in the top of the second in Game 2.
Montana tied in with an RBI ground out in the bottom of the second, then took charge with six in the third.
All six runs came not just with two outs but after outs by the first two batters. That didn’t matter, just as it didn’t in the seventh (which was played out in both games despite the outcome already being decided), when two outs were followed by six more runs on seven hits.
“We talk about a full-team offense instead of being a one-man or two-man show, and trying to find ways to produce runs as a full-team offense,” said Meuchel.
“I thought we did a good job at back-to-backing things. It was a double, then a thing where I’m going to switch you places with a double. It just got contagious.”
It wasn’t just Ward who impressed of the freshmen. Kendall Curtis got the start at second base in the opener and scored three runs. In Game 2, she went 2 for 3 with three more runs scored.
Jaxie Klucewich also made an appearance in both games off the bench, at second in Game 1, at short in Game 2.
“I have to credit our freshmen. They have a lot of stuff going on, whether it’s a new feeling of being away from home, or school or weights or softball. They are really balancing some things,” said Meuchel.
“But I also credit our returners. As much as we are going full speed ahead, our returners are definitely making sure the freshmen are with us. They are making them feel like they’ve been with us for a long time.”
Seven players had multiple hits in Game 2, six players had multiple RBIs.
Jessica McAlister did both and finished her day going 3 for 6, with two RBIs and three runs scored. She caught the opener, was a designated player in Game 2.
She was a freshman in the fall of 2017 when Montana lost to Carroll, so she knows what Sunday’s wins, the completeness of them, meant. And how important it is to replace quality with quality.
“We just came out really ready,” she said. “We have four amazing freshmen who have just added on to this great team.
“It was a big blow to lose (Maddy Stensby and Colleen Driscoll to graduation), but the freshmen have stepped up and come in ready to fight with us and win with us. They’ve made us better and tighter as a group.”
Montana will play four games next weekend, hosting Providence and MSU Billings on Saturday, MSU Billings and North Idaho on Sunday.
The fall schedule will conclude with a doubleheader against Columbia Basin on Saturday, Oct. 12.