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MISSOULA — The Corvallis softball team won just two Southwest A conference games in 10 tries last season.

It took the Blue Devils only two conference games this season to match that win total, and they did it by knocking off two teams that qualified for state last year. They’ve started 3-3 overall and 2-1 in league play after they went 9-13, 2-8 last year.

Corvallis’ promising start can be traced to players having a more polished approach at the plate, an influx of freshmen pitching talent and improving defense.

“We just have one more year of maturity,” Corvallis head coach Steve Tintzman said. “Plus in the offseason we had seven of the nine starters play summer ball for the Sparks. That’s the biggest difference there, plus one year of maturity.”

All-state shortstop Ashlyn Nixon went into Wednesday’s game batting .786 (11 for 14) with four home runs and 12 RBIs. Seven of her RBIs came against state runner-up Hamilton and its ace pitcher, Jorden Taggart, in a 12-4 upset win. Then there’s catcher Sami Knapp’s average of .647 (11 for 17) and outfielder Maria Hickey’s batting clip of .533 (8 for 15).

“Those three led us in batting last year and are doing the same this year,” Tintzman said. “Ashlyn’s just gifted. She’s very strong, very quick, our fastest player and our biggest hitter. She has a lot of gifts.”

As a team, Corvallis is averaging 13 runs per game but is giving up 11.6 on average.

In the circle, freshman Gabby Krueger has started four of five games and gone 3-1. In her first three starts, she gave up just seven earned runs across 17 innings, including wins over Hamilton and Butte Central, a state qualifier last year. But then she surrendered 13 earned runs Tuesday against Frenchtown, which took third at state last year. Tintzman said she’s working on being more accurate since she has 16 strikeouts compared to 26 walks.

Fellow freshman Macee Greenwood will provide relief for Krueger in the circle but has only made one start so far.

“Gabby’s done well,” Tintzman said. “She’s had control problems in the past that kept her off the diamond. This is the first time she’s had to pitch more than four or five innings. She’s a big, strong logger’s daughter, so it's not the physical part of it. It's more mental than anything. She has a lot on her plate. She’s way ahead of where we anticipate her. When she gets things turned around, look out, she’s going to be tough.”

In the field, Tintzman highlighted the improving play of second baseman Cierra Jessop and his outfielders.

“Cierra’s made just one error and has been very dependable. She’s made a big difference,” Tintzman said. “Then our outfield has come on strong with above average catching there. We were really weak there last year and couldn’t make a routine out.”

Even with the encouraging start, the Blue Devils know they’re in for a battle to make the state tournament since only three teams from the conference will qualify. Stevensville is also expected to compete for a spot along with Corvallis, Hamilton, Frenchtown and Butte Central.

“We play Stevensville Friday, and that’s a pivotal game in the state tournament hunt,” Tintzman said. “If you take a day off in this conference, you’re going to get beat.”

The Blue Devils lost to Ronan on Wednesday, 12-5, at Grizzly Softball Field in Missoula. Corvallis hurt itself with five errors.

Hickey led the Blue Devils offense, going 2 for 4 with a double and an RBI. But the Maidens were better in the field, committing just one error, and Macao Jackson delivered a solid pitching performance to go along with her two singles.

MAC attacking offensively

The Mission-Arlee-Charlo softball team has jumped out to a start of 4-2 overall and 3-1 in the Western B-C North one year after a disappointing finish in which it missed out on state.

Among the wins for the deeper MAC squad is a 15-7 upset of Loyola, considered to be one of the top contenders out of the Western B-C South.

“It really mentally helped them a lot,” MAC head coach Susan Weaselhead said. “We had 700 miles of travel that week, so I was worried about them coming in tired. They were able to come in focused and catch up to (Loyola pitcher) Kayla (Hickethier). It really pumped them up and was self-motivating.”

MAC’s only losses came on the road to Class A Libby, 5-4, and in a doubleheader split on the road against Eureka. Both of those games were supposed to be home games, but rain left MAC’s field unplayable.

After a slow offensive start, MAC is averaging 14.8 runs per game during its four-game winning streak and is batting .477 (41 for 86) as a team over its past three games. Frankie Smith, all-conference catcher Azia Umphrey and Caitlyn Sorrell highlight the middle of the order, while Liev Smith has added to the team speed on the basepaths.

MAC is also working on developing depth behind all-state pitcher Tomi Brazill by mixing in Smith, Umphrey and Shyanne Reum, Weaselhead said.

MAC will face its biggest test when it takes on two-time defending state champ Florence on Thursday.

“I’m hoping our bats continue going like they were,” Weaselhead said. “We ran the bases well against Loyola with some aggressive running. We have some quick girls. I’m looking forward to playing Florence and seeing what our girls can do against a consistently good team.”

Eureka’s Escobar excellent early

Eureka pitcher Avery Escobar has mowed down the competition so far this season. She’s 3-0 with a 1.34 ERA and has struck out 23 batters while walking just one.

Escobar is also making an impact at the plate, where she’s hitting .462 (6 for 13).

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at Frank.Gogola@406mtsports.com.

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