MISSOULA — Back in the summer of 2014, the Montana softball nine existed only in Jamie Pinkerton's mind.

In three seasons he transformed the Grizzlies from tenderfoot tribe to Big Sky Conference titlist. When it came to Maroon & Silver story lines in 2016-17, the softball team's May berth in the NCAA Tournament was far and away the best.

Then came the smack upside the head two months ago. The ol' you're-a-mid-major-and-never-forget-it shot to the temple.

Just like football coach Bobby Hauck eight years ago and men's basketball coach Wayne Tinkle three years ago, Pinkerton left for a head coaching job at a larger institution. Iowa State's gain was Montana's heartbreaking loss.

But here's the thing you need to remember about the Montana softball team: The cupboard is chock full. The new coach, who will be named before the end of October, will inherit a senior-dominated squad that has all the necessary parts to push for another NCAA berth.

That was fairly evident Saturday when Montana played its first home exhibition games without the man that started it all. Granted, MSU Billings and North Idaho aren't Weber State and Sacramento State, but there's an air of confidence that was unmistakable in a pair of Grizzly blowout wins.

"Jamie left the program in great shape," interim head coach Melanie Meuchel said after Saturday's impressive offensive display, which included 25 runs. "I'm really proud of how everyone has bought into the way of University of Montana softball.

"It was different (without Pinkerton) and I think everyone went through that the first week of (fall) practice. I think we've all bound together, found a way and leaned on each other and really relied on each other ... It takes big people to step up in big situations and that's what we have in our program."

For an idea how special Grizzly softball has become, it helps to get the perspective of a newcomer. Freshman Savanna Voyles of Great Falls, whose two-out RBI double broke a sixth-inning tie against North Idaho and represented the biggest clutch hit Saturday, says her first month of practice exceeded all expectations.

"It's just a completely new level," she offered. "They're all nice and appreciative of what they have.

"Most of this team is seniors, so they're all going to want to do their best this last year. I think what we have here is unbelievable."

Near the top of the list of "unbelievables" is senior shortstop Delene Colburn, whose three-run blast highlighted Montana's 15-0 shellacking of MSU Billings Saturday. After working her way through the initial shock upon learning Pinkerton was leaving, she has been a pillar of strength.

"We really just got over it," she said Saturday. "Nothing was broken so we were good. We just got back into it like nothing happened. We're in a good groove right now."

There will always be a touch of sadness attached to Pinkerton's departure because he's such a good, honest man. You don't replace someone like that so easily.

"I was looking forward to Pink coming into play for the Griz," Voyles admitted. "But I understand. He has family back home (in Iowa) so that's totally understandable." 

With all the cheating and lying in college athletics uncovered this past week, it's nice to know there's still a few Pinkerton's out there. Guys that leave under the best of circumstances for honorable reasons.

What a grand gift he's left behind.

Email Bill Speltz at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @billspeltz.

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