Florence hopes to defend state title

Florence wears the bull's-eye these days.

It's the Falcons - not perennial power Frenchtown - who enter the Class B-C state softball tournament in Frenchtown as defending champs. The tourney begins Thursday at 9 a.m. with five first-round games.

Florence, behind graduated pitcher Tawnya Vernon, ended Frenchtown's four-year title run last year. Coach Mike Thill's club is eyeing another title, but it won't come easily.

The Falcons (15-6-1) received a first-round bye and will play either Huntley Project or Shepherd on Thursday at 5 p.m. Florence, however, isn't a heavy favorite to bring home the hardware. This year's tournament promises to be the most balanced in the short six-year history of the event.

Cut Bank lost just once to Class B-C competition and is the top seed. The Wolves received the other first-round bye. Frenchtown figures to be in the hunt, as do Thompson Falls, Missoula Loyola, and Conrad.

"There is not a clear-cut favorite," said Florence assistant coach Joe McKay. "Frenchtown was a powerhouse last year and I don't think anyone expected anyone other than Frenchtown to win. This year a lot of teams could win."

"There are probably five teams that could win this," said Frenchtown coach Mark McMurray.

Florence is not at full strength. Angela Vandeburg, a .368 hitter, is nursing a knee injury. She'll play, but McKay figures she's only 75 percent. Junior Nicole Hatfield is also hurting, but will play. McKay said Haftield is at about 65 percent.

Sophomore outfielder Lisa Hayes stepped up the final two weeks of the season, going 7-for-12 at the Butte Central tournament and 10-for-14 in a tripleheader last Saturday at Conrad.

Junior Cassie Phillips will see the majority of the innings this weekend. Phillips finished 14-6 with a pair of shutouts.

"We've come together as a team," McKay said. "We're hitting better than we were last year at this time."

Florence doesn't mind playing the tournament on its arch-rival's home turf.

"We'd rather play there than anywhere other than our own facility," McKay said. "It's the best facility. We consider it home for us. We get to sleep in our own beds. It's just a great place to play softball."

The Falcons split with Frenchtown and lost twice to Cut Bank, including an 8-7 extra-inning affair last week in Conrad.

Frenchtown's last state title came in 1999 on its home field, and the Broncs (15-7) possess the talent to earn their fifth championship in six seasons.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride," said McMurray. "We're ready to play. We can't let up. We need to play well every time and not end up in the loser's bracket."

Frenchtown began the season an uncharacteristic 1-3, but responded by winning 11 of its next 12 games. The Broncs are the only B-C team to beat Cut Bank, a 12-6 win in Frenchtown on April 27. Cut Bank beat Frenchtown 5-4 in eight innings at the Butte Central tournament.

The Broncs own wins over Class A teams Polson, Libby, Hamilton, as well as Conrad and Missoula Loyola. Frenchtown also lost for the first time ever to Thompson Falls and St. Ignatius.

"It's been a little different this year," McMurray said. "The girls have worked hard and improved a tremendous amount. We need to put it on the line for the next few days."

Frenchtown's top pitcher is freshman Eileen Babon, who finished the regular season 9-2. All-state outfielder Anna Henderson is batting roughly .490. Catcher Traci Gibbs has also had an outstanding season.

Thompson Falls went 11-11 during the regular season, but was close to having an outstanding regular season. Eight of the Bluehawks' losses came by one run, including close defeats to Frenchtown, Loyola and Florence.

"Two things we've learned this year is we can play with anybody and we can lose to anybody," said Thompson Falls coach Bob Crowder.

Thompson Falls' top player is pitcher Stephanie Pirker. She went 6-6 and batted close to .500.

"We're going to have to play at the top of our game," Crowder said. "I like where we are in the bracket."

Cut Bank went 12-1 against B-C teams. The Wolves are led by senior pitcher Aileen McKenty.

If Loyola gets hot like it did at the Frenchtown Invitational in April, the Breakers could contend. Loyola went 4-0 that weekend, including wins over Conrad and Thompson Falls.

Loyola's top pitcher is sophomore Lynsey Evans (9-9).

St. Ignatius and Noxon are two teams capable of pulling off some surprises.

St. Ignatius, which endured the resignation of coach Peter Rohfleish a few weeks ago, stunned Frenchtown on May 3 and beat Loyola 15-2 early in the season.

Noxon, in its first year of softball, is the sixth seed. The Red Devils finished with a winning record against B-C teams.

Reporter Jon Kasper can be reached at 523-5247 or by e-mail at jkasper@missoulian.com.

Class B-C Pairings

At Frenchtown


Cut Bank, bye

Florence (15-6-1), bye

9 a.m. - St. Ignatius vs. Simms

9 a.m. - Thompson Falls (11-11) vs. Eureka

11 a.m. - Missoula Loyola (11-10) vs. Sunburst

11 a.m. - Frenchtown (15-7) vs. Poplar

1 p.m. - Noxon vs. Conrad

1 p.m. - Huntley Project vs. Shepherd

3 p.m. - Cut Bank vs. St. Ignatius-Simms winner

3 p.m. - Thompson Falls-Eureka winner vs. Loyola-Sunburst winner

5 p.m. - Frenchtown-Poplar winner vs. Conrad-Noxon winner

5 p.m. - Florence vs. Huntley Project-Shepherd winner

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