Montana softball: Griz No. 2 seed at Big Sky championship tourney

GoGriz.com

The Montana softball team will return to Ogden, Utah, this week, where an extra-inning loss on Saturday cost the Grizzlies a conference championship, for the six-team, double-elimination Big Sky tournament.

Montana will be the tournament’s No. 2 seed and will play its first game at 5 p.m. on Thursday at the Weber State Softball Complex.

The tournament opens on Thursday at 9:30 a.m., when No. 4 Southern Utah takes on No. 5 North Dakota. The winner of that game plays No. 1 seed Weber State at 2:30 p.m.

No. 3 Sacramento State faces No. 6 Idaho State at noon on Thursday, with the winner playing Montana at 5 p.m.

From there the tournament is a mix of games in the winners’ and losers’ brackets, most of them in the latter, a gauntlet best avoided if a team is going to seriously challenge to be the final team standing on Saturday afternoon.

The best case scenario for the tournament’s top two seeds: win once on Thursday, win once on Friday, win once on Saturday to claim the championship and be off to the NCAA tournament. It was the simple path followed by Weber State a year ago. Three days, three wins, done.

“If a top-two seed loses on the first day, they lose the advantage of having a bye,” said UM coach Jamie Pinkerton. “If we can take care of business, we only have to play one game a day. That’s the goal. Play one Thursday, one Friday, one Saturday to win the championship.”

Montana, as the No. 4 seed at last year’s tournament, learned that the hard way in its first postseason experience. The Grizzlies won their opener over No. 5 Southern Utah, then get whipped by a rested Weber State team that afternoon.

Montana again won its opener in the losers’ bracket on Friday, over Portland State, but got roughed up later that day by Sacramento State by a score of 10-4, a loss that ended the Grizzlies’ season.

“We found out last year what it’s like to play in that first round and drop a game on that first day,” said Pinkerton. “It becomes a chore to come back through. We didn’t fare well in our second games of the days. We know we don’t want to be back in that position.

“You want to stay in the winners’ bracket as long as possible. Being the No. 2 seed, you play fewer games, so it’s less taxing. But it’s only an advantage if we take advantage of it.”

Montana won every series it played this spring, sweeping Northern Colorado and taking two of three against the other six opponents.

The Grizzlies enter the tournament knowing they can beat every opponent in the field, since they’ve already done so this year. But they’ve also lost a game to every team in the field, setting up a We’re confident, but we also know … dynamic.

“There is some separation between the top two seeds and everyone else, but in a one-game scenario, anybody can beat anybody in the tournament,” said Pinkerton. “And that’s the way we have to approach it.

“In our mind, we feel we can beat anybody in the field, but we need to stay focused on our side of the bracket and who we have next. We need to play pitch-by-pitch, inning-by-inning and game-by-game, or we could get in trouble.”

Montana travels on Wednesday on the same trip it made last Thursday, when the Grizzlies played Weber State to close out the regular season on Friday and Saturday in Ogden.

The scenario was as straightforward as could be: get a sweep, win the Big Sky title and host this week’s tournament. But it wouldn’t be an easy task. It was 2014 the last time a team went into Ogden and came away with a three-game sweep.

After the Grizzlies rallied for three runs in the top of the seventh to steal the opener 4-3, Montana put up five runs in the top of the first in the second game on its way to a 9-2 win, setting up a winner-take-all game on Saturday.

A three-run home run by Delene Colburn in the top of the first got things off on the right foot, and Colburn made it 5-3 with an RBI single in the top of the fifth.

But Weber scored one in the fifth, one more in the bottom of the seventh on a two-out hit to send the game to extra innings and the game-winner eighth on a bloop single to center that scored a runner from second.

Montana went from one out away from winning a championship and hosting the conference tournament to watching Weber State celebrate its second consecutive regular-season title.

“Obviously there was still some disappointment,” said Pinkerton, “so before practice on Monday, we had a good 10-15 minute chat, just to kind of check in and find out where they were mentally and physically.

“I thought they were in a good spot. They did a good job of bouncing back, but it’s still in the back of everyone’s mind. We talked about what happened and about the mistakes we made on Saturday that are fixable. After that talk, we said we have to turn the page.”

On Thursday Montana will face either Sacramento State or Idaho State. The Grizzlies took two of three against the Hornets in early April in California, stranding 11 runners in the opener to fall 5-3, then pulling out a pair of tense 3-2 wins on day two to pick up the series win.

Montana hosted Idaho State two weeks ago in Missoula. The Grizzlies opened with a 1-0 win behind a complete-game shutout from Michaela Hood, then won game two of the doubleheader 6-3. In the series finale the next day, the Bengals scored a pair of runs in the eighth inning to win 5-3.

If Montana can win its tournament opener on Thursday, the Grizzlies will play just once on Friday, at 2:30 p.m. against the other winner from Thursday’s second-round game from the other half of the bracket. Win that and a team is championship-game bound, no losers’ bracket necessary.

As Pinkerton said, that’s the goal. Win on Thursday, win on Friday, win on Saturday, return home to Missoula with the championship trophy, start preparing for the next step: the NCAA tournament.

“We can win the tournament if we continue doing what we’ve been doing,” he said, “and that’s keeping the defense clean, hitting with runners in scoring position and getting quality pitching.

“And then we need to stay focused and eliminate the mental errors, because at this time of year, it’s the details that can cost you.”

Montana notes:

* Pinkerton has won 30 games in a season for the fifth time in his collegiate coaching career. He reached the milestone his final three years at Tulsa (2002-04), with a high of 48 in 2002, and in his fourth of five years at Arkansas, in 2008. The Grizzlies are 32-22 this season.

* If Montana does not win the Big Sky tournament and Weber State does, the Grizzlies will be playing next week in the National Invitational Softball Championship, site to be determined on Sunday night, after the NCAA announces its field at 8 p.m. (MT) on ESPN2.

If any team other than Weber State wins the tournament, the Wildcats, because of their regular-season title, get the Big Sky’s automatic bid to the NISC. If a team other than Montana or Weber State wins the Big Sky tournament, the Grizzlies would need an at-large spot to make the NISC.

* Delene Colburn, Sydney Stites and Alex Wardlow were named to the all-tournament team last year as the Grizzlies went 2-2.

* Colburn takes the team’s longest active hitting streak into the postseason of five games. Bethany Olea had a 17-game hitting streak earlier this season to set a new program record.

* Olea, whose batting average has been at .400 or above since March 19, has reached base safely, by hit or walk, in 12 straight games. Colburn reached base in 24 straight games earlier this year.

* Ashlyn Lyons has gone 9 for 15 the last four games to up her batting average above .300 for the first time this season. Montana’s No. 2 hitter is now batting .302, and she’s followed in the lineup by Olea, at .419, and Colburn, at .401.

* Montana finished the regular season with 32 wins, the most in the Big Sky.

* The Grizzlies led the Big Sky in the regular season in fielding percentage (.969), ranked second behind Sacramento State in ERA at 3.17 and finished fourth in batting at .279.

* Montana’s pitching staff struck out a Big Sky-leading 283 batters. For comparison, more than half of the league’s staffs didn’t reach 200. The big number is 26. The Grizzlies have surrendered just 26 home runs this season after giving up 55 a year ago.

* This year is the fifth Big Sky softball tournament in conference history. Portland State won the 2013 title at Pocatello, Southern Utah won the 2014 championship at Pocatello, and Weber State won the 2015 title at Pocatello.

Last season, when Weber State won on its home field, it was the first time the host team won the tournament.

* Idaho State, Sacramento State and Southern Utah are all playing in the tournament for the fifth time. Weber State is playing in its third tournament, Montana its second, North Dakota its first.

* Idaho State has the most tournament wins in Big Sky history, with eight, but the Bengals have yet to place better than the runner-up finish they had a year ago.

* Weber State, at 6-0, is unbeaten in two tournament appearances, going 3-0 in both 2015 and ’16.

Upcoming: A wide range of options, from the NCAA tournament to the NISC to the end of the season. The upcoming days and games will reveal all.