Montana softball: Griz advance to Big Sky championship game

The championship game is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday. If Montana loses, a second game — since it’s a double-elimination tournament and the Grizzlies have yet to drop a game — would be played at 4 p.m. (GoGriz.com)

By GoGriz.com

The biggest win in program history for the Montana softball team came about because of a mistake.

After missing her coach’s sign to take the next pitch, Sydney Stites drove a 3-0 fastball over the fence in centerfield in the top of the 10th inning to send the Grizzlies to a 2-1 victory over top-seeded Weber State on Friday afternoon in Ogden, Utah.

“She got into a 3-0 count, and we were just trying to get base runners on any way we could,” said coach Jamie Pinkerton. “She didn’t see me. That’s the one time I’ll forgive her.”

The win advances Montana into Saturday’s championship game of the Big Sky Conference tournament. The Grizzlies will play either Weber State or Idaho State. Those two teams meet at 11 a.m. on Saturday in a loser-out game.

The championship game is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. If Montana loses, a second game — since it’s a double-elimination tournament and the Grizzlies have yet to drop a game — would be played at 4 p.m.

Stites’s blast not only proved to be the decisive at-bat in an epic battle between the top two teams in the Big Sky, it gave Montana its biggest win in program history. All three years of it.

With Michaela Hood going the distance for Montana and Kirlyn Bohling working all 10 innings for Weber State, staff ace against staff ace, the teams combined for 25 hits but only two earned runs as both teams used pitching and timely defensive plays to strand 26 runners on base.

The pitchers combined for just three 1-2-3 innings between them, but they buckled down when they had to. Batters were just 1 for 19 with runners in scoring position.

It was the kind of game Montana as a program had to grow into over the last three seasons.

“Our first year we would have made mistakes and been a little too young for this type of game,” said Pinkerton. “Last year, pitching-wise, it would have been difficult for us to take a 1-1 game against an opponent like this into the 10th inning.

“Today we finished innings and finished the game. It was definitely our biggest win to date.”

Stites drove in both of Montana’s runs. Her RBI single to center in the top of the first drove in Ashlyn Lyons. It wouldn’t be until four at-bats later that she had a chance to strike again, going yard against Bohling.

“I honestly didn’t even think about hitting it over,” said Stites, who admitted she didn’t see Pinkerton’s take sign. It wasn’t a case of her going rogue.

“I wasn’t even going to swing at that pitch. I told myself I was only going to swing at it if it was my pitch. It just happened to work out for me.”

It was the second multiple-hit game for Stites in two weekends, a welcome sign for Montana’s offense at just the right time.

Stites hit .383 last season to earn Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors. She is batting just .253 this spring, but her swing has been compromised for months by a finger she broke at practice in late February. It might finally be returning to form.

“Ever since then, I’ve had a lot of physical issues with my swing,” she said. “It’s been really hard for me to get back to feeling like I was last year.

“I think I’m slowly getting back to where I was. I’m just focusing on trying to make solid contact. That’s my goal.”

Weber State answered Montana’s first-inning run with one of its own in the bottom of the second.

After KyRae Kogianes hit a two-out triple to center, a ground ball to second base that Gabby Martinez couldn’t field cleanly tied the score and tagged Hood with an unearned run.

Both teams spent the next seven innings hitting themselves into position to score the potential game-winning run, only to see Hood and Bohling work out of jam after jam.

Weber State had runners on first and second with nobody out in the sixth, but when the Wildcats tried to sacrifice them up a base, the bunt was jumped on by catcher Madison Saacke, who started a rare 2-5-6 double play that went Saacke to Bethany Olea at third to Delene Colburn at second.

In the seventh Weber State had runners on second and third with two outs, and thorn-in-Montana’s-side Sara Hingsberger coming to the plate.

Pinkerton opted to walk Hingsberger, and his defense made the move pay off. A ground ball to Olea at third led to a throw that Lyons somehow stretched to catch while keeping maybe a shoelace in contact with the base.

Part of the win was Hood, who threw a season-high 177 pitches and struck out four. A lot of it was the plays being made behind her.

“Michaela just kept gutting it out. She’s really growing. You can’t really call her a freshman anymore,” said Pinkerton.

“Some of the jams she got into, we helped her get out of defensively. She was able to miss bats just enough to put us in situations to make plays. Anytime you can go 10 innings and give up one unearned run, anything that happens is not going to be on the pitcher.”

Hood worked out of a second-and-third situation in the ninth, which set up Montana’s winning 10th.

After Colburn flew out to center for the first out, Stites followed with her first home run since March 31, just her third since March 4.

“The good hitters will come through eventually,” said Pinkerton. I still believe in her and that she’s a very good hitter. She got a pitch that she got ahold of.”

Hood put down the first two batters she faced in the bottom of the 10th, then gave up a single to right. That brought Sadie Blacker to the plate, the player who had the game-winning hit in the bottom of the eighth when Weber State rallied for a 6-5 victory over Montana last Saturday.

But this was Montana’s day. Hood got Blacker to ground out to Olea at third.

For as big as the win felt, it was just the second step. Montana will still need to get past either Weber State or Idaho State on Saturday afternoon. The final step requires one more win.

“It’s not impossible to win three games in a day. I’ve had teams do it,” Pinkerton said, looking ahead to the path either Weber State or Idaho State would need to take to win the title. “But I’d rather be in the situation we’re in.

“We’ve still got some work to do. We cannot come out flat tomorrow and let someone get the upper hand on us.”