Melanie Meuchel is new Montana softball head coach

New Griz head coach Melanie Meuchel has been the Montana softball team’s pitching coach since its inception. (GoGriz.com)

Now in her 24th year as the softball coach at Oklahoma, her 29th overall at the college level, there have been plenty of times when the sport has gifted Patty Gasso a special moment.

Her team has won four national championships, including the last two and three of the last five. Dating back to her days at Long Beach City College, her teams have won more than 1,300 games.

She has 10 times been voted the Big 12 Conference Coach of the Year and in 2012 was inducted into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Even the fan side of sport is looking hopeful for Gasso, a Southern California native who’s been a Los Angeles Dodgers fan for life.

There she was on Sunday night, at her seat down the left-field line at Dodger Stadium, going wild with everyone else when Justin Turner hit a three-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth to give her team a 4-1 win and 2-0 lead over Chicago in the National League Championship Series.

Still, even with all that, with the trophies and the accolades, one of the things that brings Gasso the most happiness is when someone who has spent time on her staff goes on to find their own success in the sport.

“One of my greatest joys in coaching is to see young coaches leave our program and create a coaching path for themselves,” she said.

Her coaching tree is growing. She now has five former assistants who are head coaches at the Division I level.

The latest: Montana announced on Monday that Melanie Meuchel, an assistant for the Grizzlies since the program’s inception, has been named its next head coach following a national search, pending approval by the Board of Regents.

Meuchel, interim head coach the last two months, replaces Jamie Pinkerton, who stepped down in early August to take over the program at Iowa State.

It’s been more than a decade since Meuchel spent a year on Gasso’s staff at Oklahoma as a graduate assistant coach, but in Gasso’s world, those ties, once created, are never broken.

“Mel was always a hustler, hard-working and so locked into the team,” said Gasso. “She has earned this head coaching opportunity and will be a wonderful female role model to her student-athletes, which is so important in today’s world.”

The announcement is a dream come true for Meuchel, who was born in Missoula into a softball family and raised in the fastpitch community.

Her grandparents played the sport. Her parents did also, and began coaching it as well, spreading its popularity down to the youth levels of western Montana.

Meuchel and her brother, Matt, the former head coach at Nevada and now an assistant at Arkansas, followed the same path. There was no denying it. It was in their blood.

“Everybody in the family, on both sides, from aunts to uncles to cousins, whether they played or coached, it’s kind of been a family tie,” said Meuchel, who was not only brought up around softball. She’s also been a Grizzly since birth.

“As a prideful fan growing up in this town, you learn early on that Grizzly Athletics is about championships. It’s about winning. It’s about outreach in the community and earning a degree. And always being able to win.”

But there was always a problem growing up. Her passion for softball and her love of the Grizzlies never intersected. It wasn’t a sport Montana offered, so after graduating from Big Sky High, she brought her pitching talents to Mesa State in Colorado.

It’s where she got her start as a student assistant coach in 2001, after her playing career was done. She spent two years as an assistant at McNeese State before joining Gasso’s staff, just four years after the Sooners’ breakthrough season. They won their first national championship in 2000.

Oklahoma went 50-17 in 2005, in Meuchel’s one season coaching under Gasso, and advanced to Super Regionals. After the season was over, Meuchel was hired by Michelle Gardner to be the pitching coach at Nevada.

“When Mel left I felt she was going to be an outstanding pitching coach,” said Gasso. “She was a very good communicator with the athletes and paid close attention to detail. She was very loyal and gave 100 percent to all that she did.”

Meuchel coached at Nevada for seven years, three under Gardner, who would later leave to take the head job at Indiana, four more under her brother. Three times the Wolf Pack advanced to an NCAA regional.

It was during that time, after years of rumors and what ifs, that Montana announced it would finally be adding softball to its lineup of sports.

Pinkerton, the former coach at Tulsa and Oklahoma, was hired in August 2013. He brought on Meuchel to be his pitching coach less than one month later.

They maybe didn’t do the impossible during their four years together, but what Pinkerton and Meuchel accomplished certainly approached the improbable.

Starting with nothing but a shared vision of what Montana could become, they began to lay the program’s foundation, before they had a player, before they had purchased a piece of equipment, before they even had a place to play.

They pieced together an inaugural team made up largely of freshmen. The Grizzlies won 16 games in 2015, then finished above .500 in 2016, going 29-27 and making the Big Sky Conference tournament.

It was a program on a vertical trajectory and had Missoula’s backing from the start. Montana averaged nearly 500 fans per game that first season as it debuted at Grizzly Softball Field, a crown jewel of synthetic green, never to be muddied, literally or figuratively.

Then arrived the magical season of 2017, years ahead of schedule, when the Grizzlies stormed their way to the Big Sky championship and a spot in the NCAA tournament, just three seasons after the program’s start.

And Meuchel would have been just fine doing that job — coaching Montana’s pitchers, doing the dutiful work as Pinkerton’s assistant behind the scenes — for life. She was where she wanted to be. She was doing what she wanted to do. Everything was ideal.

“I never had the thought that I had to be a head coach,” said Meuchel. “I was always content as an assistant. I’ve been very happy where I’ve worked and who I’ve worked for.”

That perfect world turned upside down the day Pinkerton accepted the job at Iowa State. It left Meuchel in a state of purgatory, not know what was going to come next or what she should do. Her background had prepared her for the head job. What she didn’t know was if she wanted it.

It took some time, but she finally came to understand there was no one better suited for the position. The sport had been passed down in her family from generation to generation. This was her opportunity to lead it forward, on a much larger scale.

“During some self-evaluation, I realized I’ve been prepped my whole life for this through some great mentorships,” said Meuchel. “It’s comforting knowing I helped Jamie build this program and have a lot of insight into what we’ve been doing to be successful.

“My vision is similar to what I’ve always known about Grizzly Athletics. You find the right people who are the right fit, and you demand excellence at all times.”

Buoyed by the experience she received while leading the program in the weeks following Pinkerton’s departure, Meuchel applied for the position. She aced both the phone and on-campus interviews, and was offered and accepted the job late last week.

Knowing what her players did not, that she was their next head coach, Meuchel led Montana to a 10-2 and 21-0 doubleheader sweep of Providence on Sunday afternoon at Grizzly Softball Field.

“Melanie has been a part of the program from the beginning. She knows the foundation that’s been built, so she’s ready for this job. I’m excited for her to take this step,” said UM Director of Athletics Kent Haslam.

“She is well-connected in the softball community, not only in Missoula but throughout the state, so she’s a natural fit. I’m excited to watch her grow and build on what we already have in place in our softball program.”

It completes the circle for Meuchel, who will now get the opportunity to provide for athletes in the state — and beyond its borders — the chance she never had growing up: to be a Grizzly. To stay home while still playing the game they love.

“I don’t know if I could have scripted it any better, from the opportunities I was given as a young athlete to working my way into the coaching world to being able to return to such a great community,” said Meuchel.

“I’m excited for the challenge in front of me. I know there are going to be trying times and obstacles, but I’m ready for them. I’m ready to go through the challenges with this team, with future teams, with kids who have the same passion for the sport and university that I do.”

She learned under Gasso, under Gardner, under her brother, under Pinkerton, but she’ll be no clone of Montana’s previous coach.

He was looser at practice, more high-strung and intense when the games rolled around, the ubiquitous voice and face of the program. Meuchel will flip that. Her practices, which will be her time, will be higher energy, and she’ll be less noticeable on game day. She wants that to be the players’ time.

Her style was on display this fall, as Montana went 7-1 while outscoring its opponents 97-11. She was there but almost part of the background, leading her team from behind, always encouraging, allowing them to make their own way.

She is different than Pinkerton, but both styles can lead to the same end result.

“I want us to play freely but with a lot of passion, a lot of hustle, a lot of grit and a lot of pride. I want us to trust what we’ve prepared for and be able to put it into competition,” said Meuchel.

“The kids understand that I demand a lot from them, but I’m also going to support them in tough times. We’re going to stick together and work to get through those tough times as an entire unit.”

Meuchel, long the assistant coach, will lead her team for the first time in a regular-season game in February, when the Grizzlies open their fourth season at Grand Canyon’s tournament in Phoenix.

The tournament schedule hasn’t been announced, but it’s known that Oklahoma will be in the field. And wouldn’t it be perfect for the Grizzlies to open with the Sooners, with Gasso going for career win No. 1,308 while Meuchel is seeking her first.

But Gasso knows it’s bigger than that, more than the wins. One of her former assistants has gotten the opportunity of a lifetime, the same opportunity she was given long ago, a chance to build championship teams while setting those players up to be successful beyond their playing days.

“I would love to play Mel in her first game,” said Gasso. “It would be an honor to share in her monumental moment.”