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Occasionally, even the old men who have seen Morgan Ray pitch countless innings are still awed by what she can do.

It's well into the fifth inning and a parade of Butte Central Maroons have come to the plate and swung at a few pitches before making what – at this point in the game – seems to be the inevitable trip back to the dugout with one more out on the board.

Some go down swinging and some try to run out dropped third strikes. Others bunt hoping to take Frenchtown's defense by surprise and many don't get the bat off their shoulder as Ray's fastballs blur through the strike zone.

"Oh boy, that one must have been near 70 miles per hour," an old man sitting behind home plate says with a laugh after one particularly powerful pitch leaves Ray's hand and snaps into Brooke Yarnell's glove with a pop that gathers the attention of everybody within earshot.

When she was 14, Ray's catcher used to stuff cotton into the heel of her glove to help absorb the energy of her pitches. Now, the Frenchtown pitcher has home plate umpires scrambling for all the protection they can acquire. 

"I just hope the $300 worth of padding works," an umpire tells a fan who asked if gets nervous working the plate with Ray pitching.

But it's Yarnell – and a few batters who have felt the sting of a rare wild screwball – that have absorbed the brunt of Ray's strong arm. Her coach, Eli Field, remembers a time when Ray was young and she was hitting batters almost as often as striking them out.

Those memories are now very faint. Ray's control issues – if they can even be classified as such – are currently measured in inches, specifically those determining whether her curveball is bending enough or if her riseball is moving the way she wants it to or if her fastball perfectly painted the corner of the plate she picked out from 43 feet away.

Held out of the circle for much of her freshman season with an ankle injury, Ray has since dominated nearly every lineup she has faced. She helped pitch the Broncs to their eighth title as a sophomore and then repeated the feat again as a junior.

She is Montana's two-time reigning Gatorade Player of the Year and the odds on favorite to win a third. She was named a preseason All-American this year as colleges across the nation attempted to wrench her away from Ohio State, the school she committed to with more than three months remaining in her sophomore season – and the place where her legend, already expansive in Montana and around the Northwest, is likely to keep growing. 

"I know she’s fantastic," Buckeyes coach Kelly Kovach Schoenly said, "but I think she’s going to make a name for herself and people will ask, 'Where did you find her?'"

***

On March 26 when Frenchtown opened its final season with Ray in the circle, Field called in to a local newspaper to report the score. The reporter on the line – clearly familiar with the torment Ray has caused her opposition – jokingly asked the coach whether Ray threw a no-hitter.

The reporter's laughter belied the answer; she had in fact held Corvallis without a hit. So why not push it a little further?

"Was it a perfecto?" he chided. Again the laughter supplied the answer: Ray worked six innings and struck out 15 that night as she picked up her third perfect game in a Broncs uniform. She also hit a three-run home run.

Such is the fruit of the labor Ray has committed herself to since she was a raw 12-year old with seemingly limitless potential in need of a little direction. Her family sought the help of Annie Zenner, an elementary school teacher in Frenchtown and a once renowned Broncs pitcher who earned herself a college scholarship.

"After the first get-together my daughter got a hold of me and said, 'I think you've got a good one here. I can't spend the time, so would you take over?' And I did," remembers Annie's father, Randy Block, a well-known pitching coach and softball mind who had worked closely with Frenchtown's pitchers in the past.

Block instantly recognized what he'd been handed, but he had a message for the young girl if they were going to build a strong working relationship. She must be committed and she must be willing to listen to the advice that had been passed down to Block from numerous softball gurus including Michele Smith, a pitching legend who earned two Olympic gold medals as a member of the United States softball team. 

Ray was eager to meet with Block as often as she could. A one-time ballerina who stayed away from sports because she didn't like dirt, Ray began playing softball in third grade. By the time she reached the sixth grade and ASA traveling teams added a more competitive element to her newly discovered sport, she was hooked and Block was the guy to mold her into Frenchtown's next great pitcher.

He taught her to throw strikes and then as she grew older, he told her she didn't need to throw those anymore; just hit the spots, work the plate and exert control.

"What I saw in Morgan right away was she was very intelligent, she was athletic and I said to my daughter after a couple times working with her, she is the package; that doesn't come very often," Block said. 

The two would meet two or three times a week until Ray's sophomore year. She finished that season 14-1 with two saves, a 0.78 ERA and 203 strikeouts in a little more than 100 innings pitched.

Her first full season as a prep pitcher, when Ray shared starting duties with future Utah State pitcher Abby Indreland, ended with a state title. After allowing just one run to Polson as she struck out 12 through eight innings, Ray was waiting her turn in the batter's box when Kayla Blood singled in Shelby Shourds to top the Pirates, 2-1.

The win came nearly a year after Polson chased a recovering Ray – she badly sprained her ankle early in the season after getting tangle in the outfield fence – from a state semifinal appearance that stuck in the memory of the developing pitcher. 

"I don’t ever want to lose to them again," Ray remembered thinking after the loss that ended her freshman campaign. Two years after that painful memory, Ray was celebrating a second straight state title after defeating Belgrade 9-5 in another eight-inning affair.

"The state championship is probably the coolest thing and the best feeling in the whole world," she said.

***

In a few months Ray will be off to Ohio State. 

She took trips to Washington, Florida State, Boston College, Central Florida and turned away the Oregon Ducks. Ray even measured the pros and cons of playing for Montana's upstart program with Block, but came to the conclusion that Ohio State was the right place. 

"I've been to a lot of colleges, I visited a lot of colleges and the thing that sold me on Ohio (State) was the coaching staff; they’re amazing," said Ray, a 4.0 student who became Kovach Schoenly's only recruit to earn the National Buckeye Scholarship. "They treated me just like family."

Kovach Schoenly, a former pitcher at Michigan, was in Southern California to scout a team when the hard-throwing Ray caught her eye. Ohio State's coach was lured in by Ray's unusually advanced technique. Unlike most pitchers, Ray holds the ball in her glove as long as possible, disguising her deep repertoire of pitches. 

After watching Ray at a few more ASA tournaments, Kovach Schoenly noticed the pitcher's delivery was increasingly consistent to allow her to throw on different planes, further keeping batters from picking up on the next pitch. 

Her advanced mechanics are a byproduct of Ray's determination and the coaching she has received from Block, Field and the rest of the Frenchtown staff. 

"The biggest thing is you don’t come across a kid that it matters to that much," Kovach Schoenly said. "She trains year round. She wants to be better, like she wants to get here and get to work, she’s not afraid of it."

***

The debate over whether Ray will go down as Montana's greatest prep softball player will likely never be settled. There were plenty of highly touted players before her and many to come once she leaves for Columbus, Ohio.

In fact, Ray is already doing her part to help raise Frenchtown's next great pitcher. She routinely allows younger girls to come to her throwing sessions and is more than willing to offer advice to the area's little league teams. 

"Her lasting impact is right out there in the seventh-grade girl who wants to be like her," Field said. "The things you don’t see is her working in the gym with those little kids next to her at times and talking with them – she’s so good with them. She’s the consummate role model. Younger girls look up and are like, 'Wow.'

"Pitching next to Morgan Ray – they can’t wait to get to the high school program and be part of it because they just see what fun it looks like she’s having and all the other kids are having. Certainly a lot of that was in place before she got here, but she definitely grew it." 

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