Last year’s loss to Weber State on the final day of the regular season stung. This year’s, when Montana couldn’t hold a four-run lead on Saturday afternoon in Ogden, Utah, will bring considerable more hurt.
The Wildcats rallied back from an early 4-0 deficit, forced extra innings with a two-out hit in the bottom of the seventh and won it with a bloop single to center in the eighth to capture their second consecutive Big Sky Conference title with a 6-5 victory.
The Grizzlies, one out away from hosting next week’s tournament, will return to Ogden next week and take the No. 2 seed into the six-team tournament, which opens on Thursday. The hope is that Saturday’s result only defeats Montana once and doesn’t carry over.
“They’re pretty devastated. They’re resilient, but they played their tail ends off and left it all on the field for Griz Nation,” said coach Jamie Pinkerton.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them, but I’ve got some real coaching to do these next few days. We’ve got to turn the page in a hurry.”
As heartbreaking as the ending was, the start of the game couldn’t have been scripted any better.
Gabby Martinez and Bethany Olea both had singles in the top of the first, and Delene Colburn let them jog to the plate when she drove a 1-1 pitch over the fence in left for her 14th home run of the season. One out and less than 20 pitches into the game, and Montana led 3-0.
Montana starter Michaela Hood only allowed one base runner through the first two innings, and the Grizzlies had a chance to give her an even larger cushion in the third.
Martinez led off with an infield single off Weber State starter Kirtlyn Bohling. Ashlyn Lyonsfollowed with a single through the left side, and Olea drove Martinez in with her own single to left.
That made it 4-0, and Montana still had a pair of runners on with nobody out. Colburn grounded out to third to advance the runners. Sydney Stites followed with a grounder to third that caught Lyons off the bag for the second out.
Madison Saacke singled to left, giving Montana a chance to go up 5-0, but Olea was thrown out at the plate trying to score from second, ending the inning.
Weber State broke through in the bottom of the third, all with two outs. Two infield singles put runners at first and second, and Sara Hingsberger drove them both in with a double to right center.
Hingsberger later scored on a shallow popup to right center that Martinez couldn’t corral, making it 4-3.
The teams traded runs in the fifth, with Montana taking a 5-3 lead on a Colburn single to right center that drove in pinch runner Katie Jo Waletzko and Weber State pulling back within one on a Hingsberger sacrifice fly.
Lyons led off the seventh with a double, which could have led to an important insurance run, but she was doubled off on Olea’s fly out to center field.
Hood got the leadoff batter in the bottom of the seventh to ground out, but Tatiana Su’esu’e gave her team hope with a one-out infield single. After Su’esu’e stole second to get into scoring position, Hood forced an infield popup to put Montana one out away from a championship.
But the one player the Grizzlies didn’t want at the plate in that situation had to be reckoned with before any titles could be claimed: Hingsberger. With a 2-1 count, the senior drove one to center that easily scored Su’esu’e with the tying run.
“It may be cliché, but they have the heart of a champion, and Weber’s senior leadership came through for them,” said Pinkerton.
With momentum taking up residence in the Wildcats’ dugout and putting its feet up, the eighth played out accordingly.
Montana went down in order, and in its half of the inning, Weber State put runners on with a walk and hit-by-pitch. With one out Sadie Blacker deposited a hit into shallow center that scored the championship-winning run.
The Wildcat dugout emptied for home plate, then to first base to find Blacker. It all took place right in front of Montana’s stunned dugout. The Griz players walking slowly off the field from their defensive positions had to make their way through the celebration.
“We got better as a team this weekend, and I think we learned that hard work doesn’t always mean success,” said Pinkerton. “What we’ve got to do now is learn how to fight through situations like this.
“Adversity can be a good thing, but you have to learn from it and move on.”
Montana was led offensively by the top of its order. Martinez, Lyons, Olea and Colburn all had multiple hits and collectively went 10 for 16. The rest of the lineup was just 2 for 18.
Hood (15-5) picked up the loss, just her third in nearly two months’ time. Bohling fought through a rough start to earn win No. 18 on the season.
Montana will open the Big Sky tournament with its first game at 5 p.m. on Thursday against the winner of the earlier 3-6 matchup between Sacramento State and Idaho State.
Top-seed Weber State will play either Southern Utah, the No. 4 seed, or North Dakota, the No. 5 seed, in its first game of the double-elimination tournament.