SEATTLE — For most of the Griz softball team, Thursday’s practice at the University of Washington’s Husky Softball Stadium wasn’t the first time they’ve held infield drills in the afternoon shadows of UW’s 70,000-capacity football coliseum.
Even before Montana’s first-ever NCAA regional tournament showdown with the hosting Huskies on Friday, UM (35-22) played a spring tournament last season that familiarized the team with the complex.
And before that, Griz shortstop Delene Colburn — who was named to the NFCA Division I All-Pacific third-team on Thursday — spent many of her Saturday’s less than 100 yards away from the right-field foul line.
“My parents have season passes to the football games, so I’ve been here a lot,” said Colburn, who grew up in Auburn, Washington, just a half hour south of Seattle.
“I don’t know if I should say... But yeah, I was” a fan of the Huskies, the Griz infielder implied.
She might not be the only one. The Griz softball roster has seven players that hail from the state of Washington, making Friday’s late game on ESPN3 (first pitch is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. MDT) somewhat of a homecoming party for the Grizzlies.
In fact, Montana has more players from Washington on its roster (seven) than Washington (six).
“We can take Montana fans with us, they can hop in the car and make the drive and all of my family will be there,” Griz first baseman Ashlyn Lyons said. “We’re gonna bring the Griz to the Huskies.”
Unlike Colburn, there will be no love lost for Lyons when the No. 2 hitter is on deck in the top of the first inning. She grew up in Walla Walla, Washington. She grew up a Cougar fan.
“Never, no… It never crossed my mind,” Lyons said when asked if she ever dreamed of playing for the Huskies. “I was a (Washington State) fan growing up and now a Griz — keeping a close crimson color — no purple.”
She and her teammates have a chance to flip the apple cart Friday. Both Colburn and Lyons enter the day with an eight-game on-base streak. Lyons has raised her batting average over that time from .274 to .306, a microcosm of Montana’s offensive uptick of late. The team batting average has gone up 19 points in the last two weeks as Montana stormed its way to a Big Sky Conference title last week in Ogden, Utah.
Make no mistake, it will take a complete effort from every part of Montana’s lineup to muzzle the Huskies (43-11).
“They’re just a good ball club. They play well defensively, they have good team speed, they hit for power,” Montana coach Jamie Pinkerton said. “There’s no illusions there that we think they’re not very good. We’re definitely going to have our hands full.”
Six UW players made either the first, second or third NFCA DI All-Region team, including outfielder Casey Stangel. Washington shortstop Ali Aguilar, who’s on the U.S. Women’s national team, was named second-team All-Pacific.
To put those awards into numbers, the No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament is a top 25 team in the nation in almost every major hitting category, including 18th in scoring.
If Montana manages the upset — and even if they don’t — they’ll draw Michigan or Fresno State on Saturday. The Wolverines and Bulldogs open the Seattle Regional on Friday at 8 p.m. Both have national pedigree.
Fresno State is a mainstay in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs made it to the field of 64 in all but three of the tournament’s 36-year existence and won it all in 1998.
Michigan, which put five on the Great Lakes all-region first-team, has a national title to its name, too, winning in 2005.
The Huskies were the last of the group to hoist the ultimate crown in 2009.
“The world probably doesn’t give us much of a chance, but all I’m concerned about is what we think in our dugout,” Pinkerton said. “Everyone in the country would say we’re a long shot, but we’re playing for a chance to go to the World Series and there’s a lot of other teams who aren’t thinking about that right now.”
Back at the Husky Softball Stadium on Thursday, the Griz certainly looked focused on the task at hand. Left fielder and freshman Anne Mari Petrino kicked off the final drill of her team’s last practice before the program’s biggest game.
She caught a deep popup in front of the purple-padded outfield wall and fired to her cutoff. Petrino then raced in on a grounder, threw home and continued to sprint for an infield popup, tossed by Pinkerton at home plate. The high-intensity, three-stage drill is meant to challenge the breadth of a fielder's skills while increasing their heart rate.
Even though it was her first pregame practice at Husky Stadium, it wasn’t the only time she’s performed the exercise there.
“The last time I was on this field was for a (high school) camp — it’s cool coming back,” said Petrino a native of Pullman, Washington.
The camp paid off. Petrino performed admirably.
Maybe — just maybe — the Griz can expect the same of themselves Friday in front of friends and family normally only reserved for home games.
Notes and quotes: Montana played Washington within one run in an 8-7, 10-inning exhibition loss last fall. Although the game didn't count, it certainly helps in the scouting department. "Playing Washington and being prepared for them is definitely better than a blank tablet," Pinkerton said. "We do have some information and we’ll try to put together a game plan and try to execute it." … The Griz have never played Michigan, and they are 0-1 in historical matchups with Fresno State. The Bulldogs beat Montana 5-1 in 2015 — UM's first year with a team.