Just before revealing the Seattle Regional of the NCAA softball tournament on Sunday evening, ESPN2’s Beth Mowins thought she heard something.
“Let’s listen to the roar that’s coming out of …” it didn’t matter that Mowins finished by saying, “Salt Lake City.”
The ruckus from the Griz softball team and a packed house at the Press Box had already washed out the last few words of Mowins’ sentence. The ESPN2 anchor was right about the noise — it’s just that it was coming from Missoula.
Griz Nation found out with the rest of the nation that Montana — in its first ever appearance at the NCAA tournament — will be playing No. 6-seeded Washington (43-11 overall) on Friday at 9:30 p.m. MDT in Seattle. The game will be televised via the internet on ESPN3.
The Grizzlies, in just their third year as a program, are ready to go.
“We figured we’d be going to Seattle,” said coach Jamie Pinkerton, who was named Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year on Thursday. “We’ll get prepared and go do the best we can do.”
It’s safe to say Montana will be heavy underdogs on Friday. The Huskies have two players on USA National teams, including senior infielder Ali Aguilar (.349 batting average, 10 home runs). Throw in Casey Stangel (.355, 11 home runs), Taylor Van Zee (hitting at a .352 clip) and Morganne Flores (.338, 10 homers) and you have one potent Huskies lineup.
“We’ll definitely have some research to do — we’re playing a very good Washington team that’s capable of going to the World Series (round of 16 in Oklahoma City),” Pinkerton said.
The Griz (35-22) aren’t intimidated, though, and why should they be? In a fall exhibition game last September in Montana, UM nearly nipped these same Huskies. UW ultimately won 8-7 in a game scheduled for 10 innings that didn’t count.
That doesn’t mean Montana — or Washington for that matter — doesn’t remember.
“I think we can compete with anyone and we showed that this year,” Montana’s slugging shortstop Delene Colburn said. “We’ll see how this weekend goes and just keep doing Griz softball.”
The Missoula squad also played No. 3-ranked Oregon in February. UM fell by the slimmest of margins in Game 1, 1-0.
Montana comes into the NCAA tourney riding a wave of confidence, too. Despite falling in the final game of the season to Weber State and losing the right to host the Big Sky Conference tournament, UM returned to Ogden, Utah, on a mission this past weekend. The Griz won three straight games, including a 10-inning 2-1 thriller in the semifinals against the host team. Bozeman native Sydney Stites slugged the go-ahead and eventual winning home run on a 3-0 pitch. She rounded the bases in a frenzy.
“I watched the video, and I was full-on sprinting around the bases,” Stites said. “I was just so in the moment, I couldn’t slow myself down.”
Freshman Michaela Hood, who was named first-team all-conference and tournament MVP, threw 177 pitches in the 10-inning complete-game effort to get her team to the title round. She earned the win again in the championship after Montana topped the Wilcats one more time, 9-5.
She threw 21 1/3 innings, 385 pitches and faced 96 batters in three games. If Hood felt it in her arm Sunday night, fee she downplayed it.
“Just a little bit sore,” the righty said, smiling, while rotating her shoulder a few times.
She and her teammates will have nearly a full five days to recover before their game. Rest assured, they’ll be ready — just like Stites was on her game-winning hit last Friday.
“I said on the fourth pitch, if it was my pitch, I was just going to hit it, because why not?” Stites said.
“We got nothing to lose.”
Fresno State (34-21) and Michigan (41-11) play in the first game at Seattle, scheduled for 7 p.m. MDT. The tournament is double-elimination; all four teams are guaranteed games on Saturday.