Big Sky champs: Grizzlies make debut in NCAA softball tourney


The Montana softball team will make its national tournament debut this week when the Grizzlies play in the 2017 NCAA Division I Softball Championship.

Montana was placed in the four-team Seattle Regional in the 64-team bracket, along with Washington, Michigan and Fresno State. Each of the 16 regional sites features a double-elimination format.

The 16 regional winners will face off in the best-of-three Super Regionals. Those eight winners advance to the Women’s College World Series, which will be held the first week of June in Oklahoma City.

The schedule (all games will be played at Husky Softball Stadium):

Friday, May 19
Game 1: Fresno State vs. Michigan, 7 p.m. (MT)
Game 2: Montana vs. Washington, 9:30 p.m. (MT)

Saturday, May 20
Game 3: Winner of Game 1 vs. winner of Game 2, 3 p.m. (MT)
Game 4: Loser of Game 1 vs. loser of Game 2, 5:30 p.m. (MT)
Game 5: Loser of Game 3 vs. winner of Game 4, 8 p.m. (MT)

Sunday, May 21
Game 6: Winner of Game 3 vs. winner of Game 5, 5 p.m. (MT)
Game 7: If necessary, 7:30 p.m. (MT)

If you’re going: Husky Softball Stadium, constructed in 1994, seats 1,500. Tickets are $36 for an all-tournament pass or $15 for single-day access. They can be purchased through Washington’s ticket office here.

If you’re not going: Montana’s opener will be streamed on ESPN3, with Beth Mowins doing play-by-play and Michele Smith, a two-time all-American at Oklahoma State and 1996 and 2000 Olympic gold medalist, the analyst.

Broadcast information for Saturday’s and Sunday’s games will be announced later in the week.

For the first time, ESPN will carry every game of the tournament, from regionals all the way through the Women’s College World Series. Different ESPN networks could air or stream as many as 112 games from this week’s regionals.

Montana’s games this weekend also will air locally on KMPT 930 AM, with Riley Corcoran calling the action.

How they got there: Montana, 25-7 in its last 32 games, finished second in the Big Sky Conference. The Grizzlies went 3-0 at last week’s Big Sky tournament at Ogden, Utah, with wins over Idaho State, host Weber State and Weber State again in the championship game to earn the league’s automatic bid.

Washington, the NCAA tournament’s No. 6 seed and one of eight teams from the Pac-12 in the field, received an at-large bid, as did Michigan, which finished second in the Big 10 behind Minnesota. Five teams from the Big 10 advanced to the tournament.

Fresno State, which tied for third in the Mountain West Conference, received an at-large bid after finishing the season 34-21.

One of these is not like the other ones: Montana, in just its third season as a program, is playing in its first NCAA tournament. The other three programs have national championships to their credit. Fresno State won in 1998, Michigan in 2005, Washington in 2009.

Fresno State is playing in its 33rd NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs have missed the tournament just three times since its inception in 1982. They’ve advanced to the Women’s College World Series 12 times and have an all-time tournament record of 90-65.

Michigan is playing in its 23rd straight tournament, its 25th overall. The Wolverines have 12 times advanced to the Women’s College World Series and have an all-time tournament record of 95-53.

Washington is playing in its 24th consecutive tournament (and 24th overall). In nine of the last 11 years the Huskies have advanced to Super Regionals. Eleven times they’ve made the Women’s College World Series and have an all-time tournament record of 99-46.

Montana not the only first-timer: East Tennessee State, winner of the Southern Conference, and Saint Francis, winner of the Northeast Conference, also are making their NCAA tournament debuts this week.

NCAA histories: Montana may be making its first trip to the NCAA tournament, but it will be appearance No. 3 for coach Jamie Pinkerton, who led Arkansas to the tournament in both 2008 and ’09. The Razorbacks went 1-2 at the 2008 tournament, 0-2 in 2009.

The Big Sky Conference has been sponsoring softball since 2013, and the league is still seeking its first NCAA tournament victory.

Portland State went 0-2 (Washington, Minnesota) at Seattle in 2013, Southern Utah went 0-2 (UCLA, Long Beach State) at Los Angeles in 2014, Weber State went 0-2 (Louisiana-Lafayette, Mississippi State) at Lafayette in 2015, and Weber State went 0-2 (Washington, North Dakota State) at Seattle in 2016.

Field notes: Montana played five games this season against four teams that made the NCAA tournament field. The Grizzlies went 0-5 in those games, with three runs scored.

Montana fell twice to Oregon in Hawaii, losing 1-0 and 6-0, lost 5-2 to Utah at St. George and fell 7-0 to California and 3-1 to Tulsa at the Golden Hurricane’s tournament. Oregon is the tournament’s No. 3 overall seed, Utah is seeded No. 11.

Series histories: Montana is 0-2 against teams playing in the Seattle Regional. The Grizzlies lost 5-1 to Fresno State at FSU’s tournament in 2015 and 12-2 to Washington at UW’s tournament in 2016.

Montana and Washington played a 10-inning exhibition game in Missoula in September, with the Huskies coming out on top 8-7. Sydney Stites had a grand slam in the fifth inning to put Montana ahead 5-3. Morgan Johnson had a home run in the sixth.

Scouting the Huskies: Washington, 43-11 overall, tied for third with UCLA in the Pac-12 with a 16-8 league record, coming in behind Arizona and Oregon. The Huskies went 14-4 at home this season, dropping two games to UCLA, one to Oregon State and one to Stanford.

Washington enters the postseason with plenty of momentum, with 13 wins in its last 14 games, including a three-game sweep at Utah last weekend. In the final game of the series, the Huskies rallied back from a 12-1 deficit after four innings to win 13-12 in eight.

Three Huskies were voted first-team All-Pac-12 earlier this week: senior shortstop and leadoff hitter Ali Aguilar, sophomore pitcher Taran Alvelo and senior left fielder Casey Stangel, who is from Coeur d’Alene.

Aguilar has scored a team-high 50 runs this season and has an on-base percentage of .476, Alvelo has a 28-6 record and 1.90 ERA, and Stangel is hitting a team-best .355 and has a team-leading 11 home runs.

Washington is 482-211-1 under 12th-year coach Heather Tarr, who played for the Huskies in the 1990s and helped her team to a second-place finish at the 1996 Women’s College World Series. She coached the program to the 2009 national title.

Michigan at a glance: The Wolverines are 41-11-1 and coached by Carol Hutchins, the NCAA’s all-time leader in wins. In her 33rd year at Michigan, she has a career mark of 1,525-489-5. … The Wolverines saw their nine-game winning streak come to an end with a 5-4 home loss to Michigan State on Friday in the Big Ten tournament. … Senior pitcher Megan Betsa, who is 23-8 with a 1.31 ERA and has 376 strikeouts, was one of four players named first-team All-Big 10 last week.

Fresno State at a glance: The Bulldogs won eight of their last nine games to earn an at-large bid to the tournament. … Fresno State is coached by Linda Garza, who is in her first year after replacing Trisha Ford. Ford turned four years of success into the head job at Arizona State. Ford replaced Margie Wright, who coached FSU from 1986-2012 and was passed on the NCAA’s all-time wins list by … Michigan’s Carol Hutchins. … Sophomore right fielder Morgan Howe is batting .438, sophomore pitcher Kamalani Dung is 25-13 with a 2.17 ERA.

Awards season:

2.15.17 — Bethany Olea, who hit .625 in five games at Northern Iowa’s tournament, named Big Sky Player of the Week.

2.22.17 — Sydney Stites, who drove in nine of Montana’s 18 runs in four games at Santa Clara’s tournament, named Big Sky Player of the Week.

3.22.17 — Delene Colburn, who batted .438 and drove in 12 runs as Montana went 5-1 at the Grizzly Classic, named Big Sky Player of the Week.

3.29.17 — Michaela Hood, who went 3-0 against Boise State and North Dakota, with 26 strikeouts and a 1.00 ERA, named Big Sky Pitcher of the Week.

4.3.17 — Michaela Hood, pitching both as a starter and in relief, posts 16 strikeouts and an ERA of 1.40 in a series against Southern Utah to earn Big Sky Pitcher of the Week honors.

4.17.17 — Delene Colburn, who hit .600 in a series sweep of Northern Colorado, with two doubles and two home runs, named Big Sky Player of the Week.

Three Grizzlies named All-Big Sky: Senior third baseman Bethany Olea and freshman pitcher Michaela Hood were named first-team All-Big Sky selections last week after voting by the conference coaches.

After last week’s tournament games, Olea is batting .422 to rank third in the Big Sky. She ranks first in walks with 33 and third in hits with 73, leading to a .522 on-base percentage. Olea ranks second in the league in runs scored with 47.

It was the second straight year earning first-team honors for Olea, who was voted second team as a sophomore in 2015.

Hood, who has won 17 of her last 20 decisions, is tied for the Big Sky lead with 18 wins. Her 174 strikeouts top the conference, her 2.15 ERA ranks second.

Junior shortstop Delene Colburn was voted second team for the second straight year by the league’s coaches despite leading the Big Sky in RBIs (58), doubles (18), slugging percentage (.759) and total bases (132).

She ranks in the top five in batting average (.402), on-base percentage (.488), runs scored (38), hits (70), home runs (14) and walks (27).

Junior catcher Madison Saacke, junior first baseman Ashlyn Lyons and junior second baseman Gabby Martinez received honorable-mention accolades.

Hood named Big Sky tournament MVP: Playing as the No. 2 seed and remaining in the winners’ bracket allowed Montana to start Michaela Hood in all three of its games last week at the Big Sky tournament.

All she did was not allow an earned run through her first 20 innings in the circle as Montana went 3-0 and Hood was named MVP.

She threw her 16th complete game of the season and fifth shutout as Montana opened with an 8-0 victory over Idaho State. In the Grizzlies’ epic 2-1, 10-inning win over Weber State, Hood gave up an unearned run in the second, then kept the Big Sky’s top offense off the scoreboard the next eight.

In Saturday’s championship game, Hood allowed two unearned runs in the third and was relieved in the sixth after her team had built a 9-4 lead. Montana would go on to win 9-5.

For the tournament she went 3-0 with a 0.98 ERA.

Bethany Olea, Delene Colburn and Sydney Stites also made the all-tournament team. Olea hit .462 and played three error-free games at third base. Colburn batted .417, Stites hit .364 and had the game-winning solo home run in the 10th inning in Montana’s 2-1 win over Weber State.

Pinkerton named Big Sky Coach of the Year: Jamie Pinkerton was voted the Big Sky Coach of the Year in 2016 after his second-year team entered the final day of the regular season with a chance to win the league title.

Though his team once again came up one game short of winning the regular-season title this year, his was the only team to win all seven of its league series, six times going 2-1, one time sweeping.

Montana notes:

* This is how to take a championship by the throat: Montana was 8 for 16 with runners in scoring position in the championship game against Weber State. At .500, it was the Grizzlies’ best performance all season in a game with at least five at-bats with runners in scoring position.

Montana pounded out a season-high 16 hits in the game.

* Montana won the Big Sky title last week in Ogden without a single player driving in more than three runs. And that’s a good thing. Nine players had three or more hits in the team’s three games and nine players drove in runs.

* On the growing list of moments that will go down in program lore, add the fourth inning of the championship game. Down 2-1, Montana sent 12 batters to the plate and scored seven runs on nine hits. In one stretch, seven straight batters had hits.

* Montana has seven players on its roster from Washington, four of those from hometowns within a traffic-free hour’s drive of Husky Softball Stadium: Tori Lettus is from Bothell, Delene Colburn is from Auburn, Kylie Hayton is from Bow, Maddy Stensby is from Olympia.

Other in-staters: Anne Mari Petrino moved to Missoula from Pullman, Ashlyn Lyons from Walla Walla, Colleen Driscoll from Vancouver.

* Montana went from 16 wins in its first season in 2015 to 29 a year ago. This year the Grizzlies are up to 35. That puts the program’s three-year record at 80-83.

* With Saturday’s win giving Montana its 35th victory of the season, coach Jamie Pinkerton has now reached that milestone four times as a head coach. He won 48 games at Tulsa in 2002, 45 with the Golden Hurricane in 2004 and 37 at Arkansas in 2008.

* Montana’s current longest batting streak is Delene Colburn‘s eight. Colburn and Ashlyn Lyons have the longest active streaks for reaching base, also at eight.

* Michaela Hood, meet the Huskies. Hood has given up just four home runs this season in more than 182 innings of work. Washington has 54 home runs, with three players with 10 or more. Interesting matchup.

* Through the Big Sky tournament, Montana leads the league in ERA (3.04) and fielding (.969). The Grizzlies have allowed three or fewer earned runs in 21 of their last 24 games and have had zero or one error in 16 of their last 19 games.

* Montana had a 5.26 ERA last season and allowed a Big Sky-worst 55 home runs. This year the staff has an ERA of 3.04 and has allowed less than half of last season’s total with 26.

* The Grizzlies’ 299 strikeouts as a staff are 32 more than any other team in the Big Sky.