Fresh off the high of the program's first Big Sky Conference title, the Montana softball team is about to get the championship digs to match.
The Montana University System Board of Regents approved authorization at its meeting last week for UM athletics to upgrade its facilities at Grizzly Softball Field. The project will cost up to $625,000 -- paid for entirely through private fundraising -- and include construction of permanent bleachers, restrooms and a concession area.
The first three seasons of Griz softball's existence played out in front of temporary metal bleachers that spent half the year behind home plate and the other half perched atop the south end zone at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. They seat about 200 fans.
"Other than that we've been relying on people to bring their own lawn chairs and circle the field," said Kent Haslam, Montana's athletic director.
The Grizzlies have averaged well over the capacity of their temporary bleachers all three seasons. Montana led the Big Sky in attendance at 374.3 fans per game across 16 home outings this spring, though that number is down from each of the previous two years. UM drew 486 fans per game in 2015, the team's first year of existence, and 423 in 2016.
"I'm excited for our players and our fans," said coach Jamie Pinkerton, who guided the Griz to a Big Sky title in Ogden, Utah earlier this month and the program's first ever trip to the ensuing NCAA tournament.
"We already have a home-field advantage, but I really think this is going to enhance all of that."
Permanent bleachers will boost the South Campus stadium capacity to 638 fans, not including those who prefer lawn chairs. While final designs and construction dates have not been finalized, project mockups describe 15 rows of seating that cover the area from dugout to dugout behind home. Included on top will be an 8-by-18-foot press box for media and game workers.
Permanent restrooms will go in next to the team's indoor hitting facility to the south. To this point, the stadium has provided only porta-potties for its fans. Missoula city code requires permanent restrooms for venues that serve the public, and UM has been operating under a waiver since the stadium's debut in 2015.
The building that will house the restrooms will also include a concession stand.
"All along we knew the first focus was to get a playing surface, get the facility set for competition and practice," said Haslam, describing the two-phase construction process. "Now it's time to provide our fans with a much better experience out there."
Haslam said tentatively construction will begin this summer after the expense is approved by Gov. Steve Bullock, the final step following authorization from the board of regents.
Montana announced its intention to add softball as its 15th NCAA-sanctioned sport in 2011 and hired Pinkerton to lead the squad in August of 2013. The team played its first games the following September, practicing at Sentinel High School and hosting a handful of exhibition games in Frenchtown.
The Griz moved to their current home in the spring of 2015 and hosted Idaho State in the first ever games at Grizzly Softball Field on March 21. More than 850 fans turned out for the doubleheader, still the program's highest attended event in Missoula.
Montana drew 608 as part of its home finale this spring, a doubleheader with Idaho State that was the third-most attended gate in the stadium's short history. Second was the 2015 finale against Weber State when 758 showed up in hopes of seeing Montana win its first regular-season Big Sky crown.
"It's been very well received and we knew softball would be a hit," Haslam said. "It's been really satisfying to watch the community support."
UM finished 35-24 this season, including a pair of losses in Seattle in NCAA tournament play.