Before junior shortstop Delene Colburn hopped out of the home dugout at the Griz Softball Field to talk about her fellow infielder, her teammates had some advice for the camera.
“Just tell 'em she’s the best senior on the team,” a Griz player quipped.
The friendly dig was intended to point out that University of Montana third baseman Bethany Olea is the only senior on the team, one returning to Ogden, Utah for Thursday’s opening of the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
But the best descriptor isn’t far off either.
Olea won’t be the first senior to graduate from the Griz program, but she is the longest tenured. The soft-spoken 21-year-old transferred for Montana's inaugural softball season after a year of junior college close to her hometown of Yuma, Arizona.
The first-team NJCAA Division I All-American emailed Montana coach Jamie Pinkerton expressing interest in playing maybe after her second year at Arizona Western. Coach Pinks – as Olea and the rest of the team call him – emailed back.
“I just asked her to come up and take a look. She took an official visit, she was a qualifier, she liked it and committed before she left,” Pinkerton said. “…We got lucky.”
Lucky indeed. Olea earned her second career first-team All-Big Sky Conference award Wednesday after leading the conference in on-base percentage (.526) and walks (33). She finished third in the league in batting average at .419 and her approach from the No. 3 position in the batting lineup has fueled a fearsome middle of the order for Montana.
Olea, who’s second in the Big Sky in runs scored (45), has been a table setter of sorts for Colburn in the cleanup spot.
“The middle of the lineup, me and Beth, she’s just my partner in crime,” said Colburn, who led the Big Sky in RBIs among other offensive categories. “I try not to put pressure on myself, but… that’s my mentality every time she’s on.
“I try to hit her in.”
The combination has worked for Montana, which earned the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye Thursday after falling in an eight-inning heartbreaker to Weber State in Ogden on Saturday. Montana needed to sweep Weber – which had lost just four home games in the last three years before last weekend – in order to capture the top seed and host the tournament.
They were one out away from accomplishing that goal before the Wildcats tied it in the seventh and walked off in extras.
“(Olea) really held it together,” Colburn said. “I was a little more emotional because I wanted to do it for her. I wanted to bring the tournament (to Missoula).”
Coach Pinkerton and his staff righted the ship Monday at practice. The Griz were back to their old selves Tuesday at practice during one of Olea’s last times on the still-crisp field turf. But the care Montana has for its eldest statesman was still supremely evident.
It’s funny to recall that most of these girls met for the very first time just a few years ago.
“Thinking back, it’s so weird. We had no idea who each other were,” said Olea, recalling a dinner the teammates had at Pinkerton’s house before Montana’s home field was even finished. “We were awkward, it was new. We didn’t know what to expect really.
“Now, being here three years, it’s completely different. We’re all like a family.”
When that team – that family – leaves the dugout Thursday to take on the winner of the Sacramento State/Idaho State first-round game, they’ll follow their quiet senior leader – one who has meant so much to a new program.
And one enjoying her last best shot to help deliver Montana its first-ever conference title.
Notes and quotes
- The Griz won ever single conference series in 2017 en route to a program-best 32-22 overall record. Coach Pinkerton and Co. feel confident but level-headed before Thursday's game. "...Basically all that means is we know we can win against all the teams in the tournament and it also means we can lose against all the teams in the tournament," UM's skipper said. "Outside of (a sweep of) Northern Colorado we won 2 out of 3 from everyone."
- Phenom freshman pitcher Michaela Hood is the probable starter for UM's tournament opener. The first-team All-Big Sky pitcher brings a sparkling 15-5 record into the postseason, along with the league's second-best marks in ERA (2.30), strikeouts (161) and wins. "At this point, she’s given us all she’s got and she’s been fantastic," Pinkerton said of Hood. "I think I’m just going to let her do her thing and not emphasize anything there, because with Hood and the pitching staff, they’ve carried us most of the year."
- Snubbed: Despite leading the Big Sky in home runs, RBIs, total bases and slugging percentage, junior shortstop Delene Colburn was named second-team All-conference.