The Montana softball team’s season came to a close on Saturday with a 7-0 loss to Fresno State at the Seattle Regional of the NCAA tournament, concluding a breakout spring. And now the real work begins.
After winning a Big Sky Conference championship in just their third year as a program and advancing to the NCAAs, the Grizzlies will have a burden that every other program at Montana must bear. It just comes with the territory.
“After the game I told the team that we need to go back and work harder than ever, because now we’re a legitimate contender for a title,” said coach Jamie Pinkerton.
“We’re going to have a target on our backs. No longer are we the ones doing the hunting. We’re going to be the ones being hunted. We’re going to have to work hard, because everybody is now going to come at us and give us their best shot.”
Montana’s trip to Seattle and its first-ever NCAA regional was an eye-opener. One day after getting no-hit by Washington’s Taran Alvelo in the Huskies’ 8-0 five-inning win, the Grizzlies managed just two off Fresno State starter and now 26-game winner Kamalani Dung.
And in her last at-bat in a Montana uniform, the team’s lone senior, Bethany Olea, drove one through the left side, hit No. 188 for her career, leading off the seventh.
Dung put down the other 21 batters she faced, eight by strikeout, 11 by fly out.
“She had good movement, and because of her windup, it took us a while to get used to her,” Olea said. “The way she released the ball was different, and I think that kind of threw us off.”
Montana had just five base runners in two tournament games, a result of facing some of the best arms the Grizzlies have faced all season. And in their three years as a program.
“This is a big stage. It’s a pretty big deal. These girls grew up dreaming about playing on ESPN,” said Pinkerton. “We did not play the best ball we’ve ever played, but we’ll learn from it.”
Freshman Michaela Hood started Friday night’s opener against Washington but was pulled early, giving her a chance to start less than 24 hours later. Even without any run support, she kept her team in it.
Fresno State played small ball to go up 1-0 in the bottom of the first. A leadoff single, followed by a stolen base and two groundouts, the second bringing home the game’s opening run, gave the Bulldogs the early lead.
But it didn’t appear to affect Hood, who worked a perfect second and third. A leadoff walk in the fourth came around to score on an RBI double to make it 2-0, still close enough that it felt like Montana was within range, despite going 16 up, 15 down through the opening five innings.
The Grizzlies couldn’t do anything with Lettus’s leadoff walk in the top of the sixth. In the bottom half of the inning, Fresno State put the game away and nearly gave Montana its second run-rule loss of the regional.
And it probably should have been a no-run inning.
After Hood gave up a leadoff triple, the runner was still sitting there after a groundout and strikeout. The next batter hit one sharply down the third-base line. It was the type of play Olea has made consistently in her career, but not this time.
It scored the runner from third, and a double to left center by the next batter made it 4-0 and chased Hood.
“We were one out away last night from avoiding a big inning and one out away in this one,” said Pinkerton. “There were times when there were runners on, and that puts a little more pressure on. Maybe we tightened up a little bit.
“We had some early-season issues with big innings, and that reared its head again in this regional.”
When the inning was over, the Bulldogs had scored five runs on five hits to take a commanding 7-0 lead.
Olea led off the top of the seventh with a single, but Dung got the next three batters to preserve the shutout. It was her 31st complete game of the season, her ninth shutout.
Hood took the loss to end the season 18-7. She finished with an ERA of 2.31.
“The results from this weekend don’t take away from what this team has done,” Pinkerton said. “We had our ups and downs, and had our moments, but we competed all season.
“They never stopped competing, and that’s all I can ever ask of them.”
That will need to become a program trademark, because as any of his fellow coaches can tell Pinkerton, all this season did was put a bullseye on his program. And he wouldn’t want it any other way, because it means his program has arrived. It’s now become Montana to its core.