The Montana softball team split its first two games of the season on Friday at the Ramada UNI-Dome Classic at Cedar Falls, Iowa.
After giving up a five-run fourth inning to fall to Nebraska-Omaha 7-4 in the opener, the Grizzlies got a two-out, three-run home run from Delene Colburnin the bottom of the sixth against South Dakota State to rally for a 6-5 victory.
Maddy Stensby was the pitcher of record in both games, with a big assist from freshman Michaela Hood, who struck out SDSU’s Baily Janssen in the top of the seventh with two out and the bases loaded to pick up the save and give the Grizzlies their first victory of the season.
Montana split on the day, mostly because the Grizzlies could not hold early leads. They built 3-0 and 4-2 leads on the Mavericks before giving up a five-run fourth.
A 2-0 lead in the second game was erased by a four-run top of the third for the Jackrabbits, only to be saved by Colburn.
“We’ve lost quite a few games the last two years by giving up a big inning, and we gave up a big inning in each game today,” said Pinkerton. “We escaped one and didn’t escape the other.
“If we’re going to reach our goals, we cannot give up three-, four- or five-run innings and win ball games. We’re not pushing any panic buttons, but that is something this team has done for two years, and we’ve got to correct that if we’re going to take the next step.”
Montana went up 3-0 in the top of the second against Nebraska-Omaha in the opener.
Montana also left two runners on base in the inning, had two runners on in the third and could only bring home one run in the fourth despite loading the bases with one out.
“We had several opportunities to put a little distance between us and them, and we left some big innings on the table,” said Pinkerton. “But it was only the third time this season we’ve seen live pitching, so we’ll take it and move on.”
The Mavericks got to Montana starter Haley Young in the third. After getting the first two batters out, Young gave up a single and home run as UNO closed to within 3-2.
Montana went up 4-2 in the top of the fourth on a fielder’s choice by Ashlyn Lyons.
Nebraska-Omaha took the lead for good in the bottom half of the fourth, after Stensby replaced Young. The Mavericks scored five runs, all with two out, all charged to Stensby, who was replaced after two-thirds of an inning by Hood.
Montana went quietly in the fifth and the sixth but was able to start a potential rally in the top of the seventh. A Stites single and Olea walk put two on with two out for Madison Saacke, who was batting sixth as the designated player. She struck out swinging to end the threat.
Montana out-hit UNO — Olea went 3 for 3, McGill finished 2 for 4 — but the Grizzlies stranded eight runners on base.
Hood got Montana out of the fourth after replacing Stensby, then allowed just one hit in the fifth and the sixth innings while striking out four in her collegiate debut.
Montana grabbed an early 2-0 lead in game two as well, with Olea driving in McGill in the bottom of the first with a double to left field and Stites drawing a walk in the second with the bases loaded.
With the bases still loaded, Colburn grounded out the shortstop to end the inning.
The Jackrabbits went up 4-2 in the top of the third, the big blow coming on Brittney Morse’s two-out, three-run home run off starter Sara Stephenson.
Trailing 5-2 in the bottom of the fourth, McGill doubled home Martinez to make it 5-3.
Pitching in place of Stephenson, Stensby cruised through the fifth and the sixth, which set up Colburn’s dramatics.
Martinez doubled, and Stites drew a two-out walk, bringing up Colburn, who was 1 for 6 for the day at that point. Her opposite-field shot put Montana back up 6-5.
“She’d been pressing the whole game,” said Pinkerton. “She had opportunities to drive runners in earlier in the game and didn’t.
“The pitch before she hit the home run, I walked up to her and told her she was pressing. She’s a natural hitter. She just needed to relax, and she did. She took a deep breath, got a pitch and drove it the other way.”
That was hardly the end of the theater. Stensby got two out in the top of the seventh but also hit consecutive batters to load the bases.
Hood entered the game and struck out Janssen on four pitches to end the game.
“Michaela threw really well and had good velocity,” said Pinkerton. “On the strikeout for the last out, she threw three fastballs and got us out of a mess. She was pretty impressive today.”
McGill had four hits on the day, as did Olea, who went 4 for 6 with a pair of walks, a solid start for the player who led Montana in batting last season at .408.
“We had some people who were pressing today, but Beth just had that cool calmness you’d expect out of a senior,” said Pinkerton “She was patient and waited for pitches she could drive and did what she’s going to have to do for us to be successful.”
Montana will face Drake on Saturday at 9:15 a.m. (MT) and Northern Iowa at 1:45 p.m. (MT). Both games will be shown on ESPN3.