Three years, eight months and 23 days may not sound like much of a feat for a building project, but it is remarkable when you consider that’s all it took for coach Jamie Pinkerton, who was hired in August 2013, to take a mere notion and create a championship program.
Without a field, without a piece of equipment, without a player when he was hired, Pinkerton and his team did the unthinkable on Saturday.
Montana, in just its third season, used the pitching of tournament MVP Michaela Hood and a seven-run fourth inning to defeat top-seeded Weber State 9-5 in the Big Sky Conference championship game in Ogden, Utah.
The win sends the Grizzlies (35-22) to the NCAA tournament, a destination Pinkerton had as the ultimate goal for his program, but even he didn’t envision it happening this quickly.
“I’m kind of overwhelmed by it. I think that reflection will come on the bus ride home, when things kind of settle down,” said Pinkerton, whose team has gone 25-7 over the back half of its schedule.
“The way we closed the season, I started realizing it was coming together, but this is definitely way earlier than I ever could have anticipated.”
Montana will find out its NCAA tournament destination when the selection show airs on ESPN2 on Sunday at 8 p.m. (MT).
“That we’re here three years later is because there have been so many people who have touched the program,” said Pinkerton. “I’ve got 102 texts I’ve got to answer on the trip home.”
Trailing for the first time in the tournament after giving up a pair of runs in the top of the third, the Grizzlies brought seven runs home on nine hits in the bottom half of the fourth inning to take control.
All nine of Montana’s starters had at least one hit, with the team’s lone senior, Bethany Olea, going 3 for 4 and cleanup hitter Delene Colburn, who may not be able to call herself first-team all-conference but can take solace in holding the championship trophy, going 3 for 3.
Both were named to the all-tournament team, as was Sydney Stites, whose 10th-inning home run in Montana’s 2-1 victory over Weber State on Friday afternoon allowed the Grizzlies to avoid Saturday morning’s play-in game.
Montana had a season-high 16 hits in the game against one of the Big Sky’s top pitching staffs.
Saturday concluded a three-day tour de force for Hood, who started all three tournament games for Montana, something made possible by the Grizzlies earning the No. 2 seed and staying in the winners’ bracket to the championship.
Hood pitched 21 1/3 innings, threw 385 pitches and faced 96 batters. And with that workload, she allowed three earned runs to earn tournament MVP honors.
“We were going to ride her arm until she told me she couldn’t go any longer or I sensed that she had had enough,” said Pinkerton.
Montana opened the scoring on Saturday in the bottom of the first. Gabby Martinez drew a leadoff walk, and two batters later Olea reached on an infield single. After a wild pitch moved the runners up a base, Colburn drove in Martinez with a sacrifice fly to right field.
Weber State, which defeated Idaho State 8-6 in a loser-out game prior to the championship, struck for two runs in the top of the third.
Big Sky Freshman of the Year Takesha Saltern opened the inning with a triple and later scored on a throwing error by Montana catcher Madison Saacke, who was trying to gun down a runner at second on a stolen base attempt. An RBI single later put the Wildcats up 2-1.
If Montana ever needed a round of frenzy hitting, as Pinkerton describes it, this was the time.
His team delivered in the bottom of the fourth, pounding out nine hits, all singles, five of them in two-strike counts against Weber State starter and 19-game winner Kirtlyn Bohling, who was relieved after Sydney Stites‘s RBI single to center made it 5-2.
Reliever Tatiana Su’esu’e, who started earlier in the day against Idaho State, allowed three more runs to score, with Dani Walker‘s two-run single bookending the two-run single of Ashlyn Lyons to get the rally rolling earlier in the inning.
Weber State had three hits off Hood in the top of the fifth to score one run, then had three more in the sixth, when the Wildcats scored twice and forced Pinkerton to replace Hood with Colleen Driscoll.
“Michaela went as far as she could get,” said Pinkerton. “They got that little rally going in the sixth, and at that point I realized she had given all she could give.
“I sensed it was time, and I had total confidence that anybody could come in and pick up the slack.”
Trailing 9-5, Weber State had a pair of runners on base with two outs in the top of the sixth and Sara Hingsberger at the plate. Driscoll was up for the challenge. She struck out Hingsberger swinging, then worked a 1-2-3 seventh.
The win came one week after Montana lost to the same team on the same field in heartbreaking fashion. Knowing it would take all 21 outs before he could breathe easily, Pinkerton was late to the on-field celebration.
“I stood up to hug (pitching coach Melanie Meuchel), and she was gone,” said Pinkerton. “At that point I just kind of stood in the dugout with my arms up and watched the kids celebrate. It was fun.”
The image is fitting: a coach, a builder, his arms raised proudly, holding up and showing off to all what’s been constructed.