SEATTLE -- There was no Cinderella story for the University of Montana softball team after Saturday’s 7-0 loser-out defeat to Fresno State. No ticker-tape parade awaits the Grizzlies’ return to Missoula from the Husky Softball Stadium on the shores of Seattle’s Union Lake.
But when the scores of maroon-and-silver-clad fans who made the trip west remember this team, it’ll be for the 2017 season as a whole – one that culminated in a third-year program punching its ticket for the first time ever to the sport’s biggest stage.
“Maybe they don’t realize it – I’ve done this three times – but it’s a big stage,” Montana coach Jamie Pinkerton said after his team’s ultimate exit from the Seattle Regional of the NCAA tournament. “With a new program that has never been through it, the enormity of it all.
“I don’t want to make it sound like it’s bigger than what it is, but it’s a pretty big deal.”
And it’s good thing to remember.
The one to let go for Griz fans will be Saturday’s sixth inning against the Bulldogs.
Fresno State had more trouble cracking Montana’s code of pitching and defense than Washington did against the Griz on Friday, but the Bulldogs finally found the right combination late.
Fresno State led off the pivotal five-run frame with a triple from right fielder Morgan Howe that fell in front of a diving Anne Mari Petrino in left field.
Griz starting pitcher Michaela Hood nearly escaped the jam, though, coaxing a ground out from cleanup hitter Lindsey Willmon and striking out Savannah McHellon to follow.
“It’s not the first game I’ve been in a lot of danger,” said Hood, who stranded three batters before that point and struck out three for the game. “I just relax, focus, breath and I just get through it.”
But the Griz (35-24) couldn’t dodge the threat this time. Just like Friday’s loss to Washington, where the hosting No. 6-seeded Huskies scored five of their eight runs with two outs in the third inning, Fresno State posted a five-spot before the sixth inning was over.
“We were one out away last night from the big inning and one out away from avoiding this one – and it happens, that’s softball – but I’m proud of the way we competed,” Pinkerton said.
Kierra Willis dealt the first blow, singling sharply to Griz senior Bethany Olea at third, who couldn’t handle the hot shot. Howe scored, making it 3-0.
Vanessa Hernandez followed with a gapper to left-center that sent Willis home and Pinkerton had to go get his freshman pitcher, who not only kept Montana in this game, but was instrumental in delivering Montana’s first-ever conference title.
Hood (18-7) left to a standing ovation from all of Griz Nation in attendance.
“Hood doesn’t know it, but she was a leader this year. She kept us in a lot of ball games and did a heckuva job this year,” Pinkerton said.
The Dogs (35-23), who were later eliminated in a 4-0 no-hit loss to Michigan Saturday night, weren’t done there. They brought around four more runs before sophomore Colleen Driscoll, Montana’s third pitcher of the inning, came on to record the final out.
The Griz, trailing 1-0 after one inning, threatened to tie the game in the second after shortstop Delene Colburn recorded Montana's first postseason hit. Her double was all hustle as the Fresno State center fielder, playing deep, couldn't handle the shallow bloop.
Colburn, sprinting off the crack of the bat, slid in to second safely to lead off the frame.
Montana was set down in order from there, though, as Fresno State's pitcher Kamalani Dung was just plain dealing. Dung (26-14) struck out eight and walked one. She allowed one more hit in the top of the seventh to Olea.
It was a big moment for Montana’s only senior, one who was second in total hits and on-base percentage in the Big Sky Conference this season.
“It felt really good – it was my last at bat,” Olea summed up moments before receiving a big hug from Hood.
While it was also the last game of the season for the Grizzlies, it was certainly a season of firsts for the team and perhaps a sign of things to come.
“…Now, we’re not new, we’re not a novelty anymore. We’re now a legitimate contender for a title,” Pinkerton said.
And that’s something for the Griz to bring home.