Montana softball back in the saddle for fall exhibition games

Montana will host Spokane Falls for a doubleheader on Saturday, Oct. 7, and Great Falls Providence for two games on Sunday, Oct. 15. (GoGriz.com)

The Montana softball team, not far removed from its magical month of May, when the Grizzlies won the Big Sky Conference tournament title and made their first NCAA regional appearance, opened its fall exhibition schedule with two days of games this weekend at Grizzly Softball Field in Missoula.

Montana, which finished 35-24 in the spring, opened its fall practice schedule on Sept. 6.

“We do a lot of things based on competition in practice, but I think they’re ready to perform together as a team,” said interim head coach Melanie Meuchel. “They’re excited to be back in front of their fans and try to build on what this program established last year.”

Montana lost two starters off last year’s team, three-time All-Big Sky Conference third baseman Bethany Olea, to graduation, and Sydney Stites, the 2016 Big Sky Freshman of the Year, to transfer.

The Grizzlies are also in the process of replacing Jamie Pinkerton, who led the program its first three years and was voted the Big Sky Coach of the Year in both 2016 and ’17.

Pinkerton was hired away by Iowa State in early August, leaving Montana without a fulltime coach for the time being.

“There is never a good time to lose your head coach, but it was probably the best timing for the group we have,” said Meuchel, who has a team with 11 seniors under her watch this fall.

“They’ve really stepped up and showed their mature approach. They’ve accepted what they’ve been given and have taken on a little bit of leadership themselves. They are confident in what they’ve been a part of building and are ready to keep adding to it.”

Pinkerton’s departure has made a first-time head coach of Meuchel, even if it is on just an interim basis. The program’s next head coach is expected to be announced by mid-October.

She’ll be leading the team this weekend, and the next two weekends of home games as well, coaching from the third-base box when the Grizzlies are at the plate, watching her pitchers and the entire defense when Montana is in the field. It’s all been new but something she is growing into.

“I’ve really tried to work on that in practice so the players get comfortable with me out there as well as my getting comfortable with the role I’ve had to step up and take,” she said.

“It’s been a fun challenge. In the past, I’ve been quiet on the field, but I think I’ve been able to bring out a spark and excitement from my side, and I’ve always known I had it in me. I’ve just always been in a position where I’ve fed off other coaches. Now I’m setting the tone for the team.”

Sitting out all the fall games will be senior centerfielder MaKenna McGill (knee) and junior pitcher Colleen Driscoll (back). Everyone else, except for senior Katie Jo Waletzko on Saturday (wedding, not her own, at least we don’t think so), is in the mix, ready for assignment.

The task for Meuchel will be coming up with a mix that allows her team’s starters to blend with not only the four newcomers but all the other returners.

“We’re out to win this weekend, but our fall is also based on giving opportunity for every kid who deserves it,” said Meuchel.

“We’ll try to get everybody some starting time and everybody some late-inning time. And we’ll try to find some combinations that will help our new kids. We don’t want to use all returners in the infield, then go with all new kids. We want to mix it up.”

Returning starters include senior infielders Ashlyn Lyons (first base), Gabby Martinez (second base) and Delene Colburn (shortstop). That trio has made 455 combined starts the last three seasons.

Sophomore Anne Mari Petrino made 37 starts in left field as a freshman. Senior Alex Wardlow started the season’s final 34 games in center after McGill was injured in March, and senior Madison Saacke started 44 of 59 games at catcher.

Olea and pitcher Michaela Hood were voted first-team All-Big Sky Conference at regular season’s end. Colburn was named third-team NFCA All-Pacific Region but only (shamefully) second-team All-Big Sky. Saacke, Lyons and Martinez were honorable mention.

Making their debuts this weekend will be freshmen Tristin Achenbach, Alexis Knauss, Jessica McAlister and Savanna Voyles.

Because of their Montana backgrounds, eyes will be on both Achenbach, a pitcher, and Voyles, an infielder, this weekend. Both are graduates of C.M. Russell High in Great Falls. Knauss is an infielder from Meridian, Idaho, McAlister a catcher/infielder from Albuquerque, N.M.

Achenbach and Knauss were their home state’s Gatorade Player of the Year.

“They’ve looked good but have also looked at times like freshmen,” said Meuchel of the foursome. “There has been a lot of information that’s been thrown at them in three short weeks, whether it’s our offense, our defense, our signs or our expectations.

“They’re handling it very well, and our upperclassmen are being phenomenal leaders in helping guide them and encouraging them through some of their struggles.”

With Driscoll sidelined, Meuchel will have four active pitchers this fall. Expect all four to start a game this weekend and all four to pick up some innings in relief as well.

Hood, first-team All-Big Sky as a freshman and the Big Sky tournament MVP, is the headliner, but senior Haley Young and junior Maddy Stensby also return.

With Hood and Driscoll getting most of the starts last spring, Young and Stensby saw most of their action in relief.

“I’ll try to get everybody a start this weekend so we can see them in that role, and then we’ll pitch them in relief as well,” said Meuchel.

“We know what we’ll get from Hood based on what she showed her freshman year, and it will be nice to get Haley and Stensby back to the comfort of a starting role. And then we’ll get Tristan out there. She’s starting to settle in and has shown she belongs here. She’s learning to be herself out there.”

On a team of mostly knowns, Achenbach provides the fall’s great unknown, at least for now.

She went 17-1 in the spring for the state-champion Rustlers and ended her senior prep season with a 0.23 ERA, with 264 strikeouts in 122 1/3 innings of work. She allowed only 27 hits on the season while holding opponents to a .068 batting average.

She finished her career with 16 state records, 19 no-hitters and 1,169 strikeouts.

The question that will be answered before our eyes as the fall (and her career) rolls along: Does dominating Montana prep softball translate to the Division I level?

“She is a very competitive kid who expects a lot out of herself. She’s excited, but everything is new,” said Meuchel, who has worked with Montana’s pitchers since Pinkerton hired her as the program’s first assistant coach.

“She’s still in that development phase. She’s facing hitters who are more disciplined and maybe don’t swing at some of her pitches. But she has really good command and is learning what she can get away with.

“She’s learning what that zone is with her pitches, and that’s going to take some time for her. As she gets the opportunity to throw against college hitters, she’ll keep developing and keep growing. Over time you start to become a pitcher and understand what you’re trying to do out there.

“She has a very good background with a very good pitching coach. With that knowledge and skill set, she has a very good foundation off of which to work. It’s now being able to apply it.”

Montana will host Spokane Falls for a doubleheader on Saturday, Oct. 7, and Providence for two games on Sunday, Oct. 15.