It was an interesting sight after the University of Montana’s final out of the season and the NCAA tournament on Saturday in Seattle.
The Griz softball team lingered around the facilities of Husky Softball Stadium, even while Fresno State – who eliminated Montana 7-0 in Saturday’s loser-out game – continued to play against Michigan. Some talked to family members or took pictures with the remaining contingent of fans clad in maroon and silver.
It was clear; they weren’t ready to be done.
“Obviously you never want to be done with the season – we would have loved to play more games – but we had that sense of, yes, we didn’t really perform the way we wanted to, but people were still proud of us,” Griz freshman Anne Mari Petrino said.
How could Missoula not be?
Disregard, for a moment, Montana’s two-and-out finish at its first ever NCAA tournament regional appearance. Now realize that three years ago the Division I Griz softball team played its first ever “home game” at the Frenchtown high school softball fields.
Think back to when now-graduating senior Bethany Olea took her recruiting trip to Montana from Yuma, Arizona before UM’s first season. All coach Jamie Pinkerton had to show her of Montana’s facilities were blueprints and a vision. Think how Olea and the rest of her teammates bought into the idea of building a program literally from the ground up.
It’s worth recognizing the brief history of the team to realize truly how special Year 3 was for the Griz softball program.
It was actually a road loss in February where Montana (35-24 overall) may have realized its potential. At the Hawaii Invitational in Honolulu, the Griz battled then No. 5-ranked Oregon tough in a 1-0 defeat.
“You can totally take positives from those games and I fully believe we could hang with them and compete,” recalled Petrino.
The Griz again competed with a Power 5 team back on March 3. They led 2-1 through two innings and the game stayed tied 2-2 until the sixth inning.
There, the Utes, ranked No. 16 at the time, rattled off three runs, partially fueled by an error that extended the inning and helped them fend off the upset. It was reminiscent of the big innings Montana allowed against Washington and Fresno State last weekend.
The Bulldogs scored five runs in the sixth inning against Montana on Saturday after the Griz committed a fielding mistake. Washington scored all eight of its runs in its 8-0 win against Montana in the third inning. Washington, Oregon and Utah all moved on to the NCAA Super Regional.
“We had our early season bout with big innings and it reared its ugly head obviously in this regional, but that doesn’t take away from what they’ve done,” coach Pinkerton said.
What Montana had done was fine-tune themselves for Big Sky Conference play, where UM never lost a series (15-6 in BSC).
When Montana’s minor lapses happened at the Seattle Region last weekend, it came as a surprise. As Pinkerton said after Friday’s loss to Washington, they were uncharacteristic.
The Griz were the top fielding team in the Big Sky (.968 fielding percentage) and were first in the conference in pitching earned run average (3.09), strikeouts (303) and innings pitched.
Pitching and defense – the makings of any championship team – were the Grizzlies' calling card all season. It’s what carried them to a conference title.
“When you get into postseason it’s pitching, defense and clutch hitting,” Pinkerton said after winning Big Sky tournament. “With (Michaela) Hood and the pitching staff, they’ve carried us most of the year.”
And Montana should be able to expect Hood and the rest of the staff to carry them for years to come.
Despite starting the season 2-2 with a 3.39 ERA the freshman pitcher emerged as a staff ace, finishing the year 18-7, a 2.31 ERA and a First-Team All-Big Sky award. She was particularly effective against the Big Sky Conference, going 12-3 against her league rivals. That included a 3-0 run through the Big Sky Conference tournament where she threw 385 pitches in 21 1/13 innings to take home tournament MVP honors.
The bats were there for the Griz when they needed them, too. Olea and Colburn, who were the only two to record a hit in the regional, carried Montana from the 3-4 positions in the lineup.
Olea was third in the Big Sky in batting average and second in on-base percentage and total hits, marching to her first-team selection at third base.
Colburn led the conference in nearly every major power-hitting statistic (home runs, RBIs, total bases and slugging percentage) while batting .397. With Olea graduating, Colburn becomes the biggest bat returning next year.
But she won’t be alone. Olea is Montana’s only graduating senior, meaning an offense that was second only to Weber State in total hits and runs scored will remain largely intact.
“We have a big piece over here to the left that we’re going to have to replace, no doubt about it,” Pinkerton said, gesturing to Olea at the postseason press conference. “But I fully expect a young leader to step up next season.”
And that’s where 2017 really made its mark – it’s hope for the future. The season, easily Montana's best in a small sample size, poured the foundation of potential for a program. It's one that may have the pieces to make postseason play seem expected rather than extraordinary.
Certainly the Griz players felt it on Saturday. It was a feeling of accomplishment mixed with dissatisfaction of the finish to an otherwise great year. It’s a feeling Montana wasn’t quite ready to let go of after the final out.
“It was also more of a celebration of how the season went… More of (remembering) we’re still Big Sky champs and we had a really great season,” Petrino said of the atmosphere on the flight back from Seattle.
“It was a little sad, but we still accomplished a ton this year, and we’re ready to build on that.”