Jamie Pinkerton was sitting in a Kansas City, Missouri, traffic jam last August when his phone rang. It was the University of Montana offering him a job coaching the school’s new women’s softball team.
But when Pinkerton accepted the position while dodging traffic, he had no players, no roster and no uniforms. His team had no bats, no helmets and, in perhaps the most glaring obstacle of all, the Lady Griz didn’t have a playing field.
That began to change Thursday when UM sank six silver shovels into the soil, breaking ground on a new softball stadium. The ceremony took place shortly after 10 a.m. under a full summer sun.
“There’s a lot of firsts going on, and today is one of them,” Pinkerton said. “There are a lot more firsts to come – that first hit, that first run, that first win and that first Big Sky championship, which, I’ve been told, needs to come quickly.”
The women’s softball team represents the university’s 15th collegiate sport. When the team takes the field next spring, it will also become the first NCAA-level softball program in Montana and the eighth team to join the Big Sky Conference.
UM Athletic Director Kent Haslam stood over home plate and noted its position, saying it’s here where batters will swing away when the stadium is completed. The field’s dimensions will stretch 200 feet down the right- and left-field lines and 220 feet to dead center.
“The field will be all synthetic – no dirt,” Haslam said. “That’s state of the art. It’ll give us the opportunity to play in all kinds of weather. We know what spring is like in Montana.”
More than 50 people turned out for the ceremony and the excitement surrounding the new program was palpable. The Grizzly Scholarship Association committed $200,000 toward the project, and UM students passed a new fee to help pay for the program.
But until the team takes the field, this South Campus park must undergo a dramatic transformation. Work is expected to begin in the next few days, headed by the Jackson Contractor Group.
Paradigm Architects is designing the roughly $1 million complex.
“This starts a new and exciting era for us in Grizzly athletics,” said UM President Royce Engstrom. “It’ll add to the excitement in the Big Sky Conference and certainly the first NCAA-level softball program in the state. To have this new Division I sport on our campus lends a great deal of vibrancy to what we’re already doing here.”
Engstrom said the program will adhere to the university’s new athletic focus, one he described as excellence in competition, excellence in the classroom and excellence in the community.
Together, UM athletes have logged an average 3.0 grade-point average for 18 straight semesters, Engstrom said. They also have completed 2,000 hours of community service.
“We also have great records in competition, and many of our teams go on to playoffs and championship games,” Engstrom said. “We certainly look forward to our softball team doing that very early on.”
With the start of school just weeks away, the new players are expected on campus soon. In their place Thursday, members of the women’s track and soccer teams modeled the new softball uniforms.
Pinkerton praised the uniform’s design and admitted that things are happening quickly. He signed three new players to the team this week, bringing his roster to 16.
Practice starts Sept. 2 and the new team will play eight exhibition games in the fall. The Lady Griz face their first opponent on Feb. 6 in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The team will return to Missoula for its home opener against Carroll College at 4 p.m. March 18 – a historic game by all accounts. That weekend, they’ll face their first conference opponent in Idaho State University, which happens to be the reigning Big Sky champion.
That team recorded a 35-20 season last year. In contrast, Portland State University, the conference’s newest team, finished 8-36.
“It’s coming quicker than we’ll probably be ready for,” Pinkerton said. “But let’s play the best early and we’ll try to rock the world as much as we can.”