FLORENCE — It's only fitting two of Montana's most prestigious softball programs in their respective classes would take the field during Florence's dedication day of the new Otto Thill Field.
Between Florence and Frenchtown, the Western Montana squads have combined to win a staggering 21 state championships since 1996.
On Saturday, the Class B Falcons couldn't quite keep up with the Class A Broncs, though, as Frenchtown won 9-3.
The Broncs, last winning state in 2016 and making appearances at the state tournament each season since, scored eight runs between the fourth and seventh innings to back a complete-game pitching performance from Claire Bagnell. The junior's rise-pitch helped keep the two-time defending Class B champions off balance.
Bagnell allowed an RBI base hit to Florence's No. 2-hitter, Natalie Dulac, in the first inning that scored Shannon Byrne, but she settled in to post zeroes from the second through the sixth.
"She's been telling us she doesn't feel right yet, (and that) could just be the long spring and not being able to get outside and get on the dirt ... But she was awesome today. She got better as the game went along," Frenchtown coach Eli Field said. "... That's the top program in Class B, they're exceedingly well coached, they put a ton of pressure on you, but I thought they struggled with Claire's riser on the inside of the plate, and once we found that we stuck with it.
"But still, we didn't get a lot of strikeouts. They do things to try to combat that."
Byrne, pitching in the opposing circle, was equally as effective through three innings. The senior allowed a first-inning homer to Layne Bauer, but she stranded a pair of runners in the second inning, worked a 1-2-3 third, and limited the Broncs damage to just two runs in the fourth inning.
Byrne also reached base three times on offense and scored twice.
"Shannon threw extremely well today, and some of the runs late when she was out there, well, we should have gotten her out of there. We made some mistakes," Florence coach Rob Ralls said. "She got out of a couple jams, she threw extremely well and moving forward Kylie (Kovatch) came on and threw extremely well for a freshman."
The Broncs found add-on runs in the fifth, sixth and seventh, though, scoring a pair in each frame, as a pair of uncharacteristic Florence errors aided in a fifth-inning rally.
Byrne got out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth, but the Broncs already had Cassidy Bagnell and Bauer cross the plate to give Frenchtown a 5-1 lead.
That was more than enough to absorb a seventh inning, two-out, two-run rally that was supplied by a Rilee Mangun 2 RBI double. The two-base hit was the loudest hit of the game for Florence and it scored Byrne and sophomore Jayden Hendricksen.
Frenchtown, though, had built a 9-1 lead before the bottom half of the seventh, as the Broncs helped erase from their memory a 4-0 shutout loss to Southwest A rival Hamilton from earlier in the week.
"They were not happy Thursday (against Hamilton). They did not feel like they put their best foot forward — and give Hamilton credit, they played great — but this group of kids I have love to compete," coach Field said. "We just told them to come down today, relax and have fun."
Editor's note: A story on the dedication of Florence's new softball and how it came to be — from 2017 firefighting camp, to 2018-19 weather delays — will be featured in Wednesday's edition of the Ravalli Republic.