It wasn’t just the end of the 2018 season when the Montana softball team lost 3-2 to North Dakota on Friday afternoon in an elimination game at the Big Sky Conference tournament at Wildcat Field in Ogden, Utah.
It was the end of an era for a program that now has an established feel to it, one that in four years has already experienced the high of a championship and the low of not being able to follow it up with another, proving that even for a special group of seniors, not everything always goes according to plan.
Montana fell behind 2-0 in the fourth, rallied to tie it with a pair of two-out, run-scoring singles in the fifth and fell behind once again in the sixth.
And after the final out of the seventh inning, a fly ball to center with the tying run on base, a new truth emerged. The team’s 11 seniors, who were so instrumental in building the program, who went from callow to champions, were finished, a Montana uniform never to be worn again.
“It was a lot of emotion, whether you’re a coach or an underclassman or a senior or a parent. People who have spent four years with this group have become very attached to our team,” said UM coach Melanie Meuchel. “I’m proud of them. They fought until the very end. We were focused until the last out and had a chance. They left everything on the line. And then the reality hit after the last out.”
Friday was enough of a challenge, even without the prospect of both teams facing elimination. A game scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. had nearly five and a half hours of rain delays.
First it was pushed back an hour. Then 30 more minutes. Then two hours, which gave the team just enough time to leave for lunch. Then another delay, with instructions to go back to the hotel until further notice.
First pitch was finally thrown a few minutes before 3 p.m., in light rain on a soggy field Weber State did everything it could to make playable.
“It wasn’t ideal for anybody. It was just a long waiting game, but I thought we stayed focused,” said Meuchel. “We showed up and fought and played hard given the circumstances. The players took every punch that was thrown at them. They were pretty resilient.”
It was a matchup of two of the Big Sky’s top pitchers, with Colleen Driscoll throwing for Montana, Kaylin VanDomelen for North Dakota, the ace who held the Grizzlies scoreless in her two complete games when the teams met in Grand Forks back in March, a series UND would sweep.
The teams combined for just two hits through the first three innings before North Dakota opened the scoring in the top of the fourth.
The leadoff batter reached on a Montana infield error. A single and stolen base put runners on second and third for VanDomelen, who is as good with a bat in her hands as she is with the ball.
Her single to center made it 1-0, a double steal in the next at-bat made it 2-0.
Going into the bottom of the fifth, Montana had scored just one run against North Dakota in 25 innings this season, but the Grizzlies doubled that with some clutch hitting.
With two outs and Anne Mari Petrino on second, Delene Colburn singled to center to make it 2-1. Ashlyn Lyons followed with a single to left and Madison Saacke beat out an infield single to the second baseman that scored a hustling Colburn all the way from second, tying the game 2-2.
UND's Taylor Nadler led off the top of the sixth with a double. She was sacrificed to third, and VanDomelen drove her in with a ground out.
Montana went in order in the sixth and was down to its final out in the seventh when Colburn kept the game going with a single up the middle, giving the senior her sixth four-hit game of her career.
Two pitches later, a season-ending fly out.