MISSOULA — The hottest team in the Western B-C was staring down a potential exclusion from the state tournament.
Loyola tied for second in the North conference's regular-season standings but ended up fourth because of tiebreakers and had to win a play-in game just to make divisionals. When play at the first day of divisionals was suspended because of weather and day two looked like it'd be canceled, the Breakers most likely weren't going to be one of the four teams to automatically make state out of the 11-team tourney that had teams from the North and South.
The Breakers got their chance to play on Saturday, and they continued the surge that featured them winning seven consecutive games against conference foes heading into the tournament. They not only qualified for state, but they went 3-0 and won the divisional title in dramatic fashion to earn the top seed out of the Western B-C.
"It was definitely an emotional ride the last couple days," Loyola head coach Brian Bessette said. "To think we might not even get a chance to qualify despite feeling like we were in a good spot, we’re just so grateful we got to play the games today and earn our way in. It would have been heartbreaking if it got canceled and we had to be watching next weekend. It’s going to be a fun bus ride home."
Because the tournament got delayed, the decision was made to alter the double-elimination tournament. The winner of the game between the last two undefeated teams, Loyola and Florence, would be the top seed to state and the loser would be second. The last two one-loss teams, Plains/Hot Springs and Manhattan, would play for third and fourth place, which Plains/Hot Springs won.
The Breakers trailed two-time defending state champ Florence 5-2 in the bottom of the sixth but struck for one run that frame to start their comeback. In the seventh, their 7-9-1 batters reached base to start off the inning. Hellie Badaruddin then drove in Morgan Hall on a one-out single. McKenna Bessette followed with a walk-off, two-run single that scored Stephanie Radcliff and Molly McHugh for Loyola to finish the 6-5 defeat of Florence.
"Everyone's contributing right now," Brian Bessette said. "Our outfield is coming up with plays. Our pitchers are throwing well. Our infielders are making plays. It's a true team effort. Our bats were definitely alive this weekend throughout the lineup, and we're getting production from everyone in the lineup."
Bessette, who's provided Loyola with a boost since her return last month, had quite the day. At the plate, she went 7 for 12 with 13 RBIs and five runs scored in three games. In the circle, she gave up three earned on seven hits in 13 innings, striking out 26 and walking two.
Loyola started the day with a 14-2 win over Manhattan in which Bessette and Kayla Hickethier combined to throw a one-hitter in five innings. Bessette had a double, a home run, seven RBIs and two runs scored. Carly Tipp added two RBIs.
In the Breakers' second game, Bessette threw a five-inning no-hitter in an 11-0 win over Plains/Hot Springs. An error by Loyola kept Bessette from getting the perfect game. She struck out 12 of the 16 batters she faced. At the plate, Bessette had four RBIs, Hickethier went 3 for 3 with two RBIs and Emily Hermes added two RBis. That sent Loyola into the undefeated final against Florence.
Florence will be the No. 2 seed at state as it tries to win its third consecutive title. The Falcons had been without star pitcher Shannon Byrne, who suffered a high ankle sprain in late April, until she returned in yesterday's 13-8 win over Eureka in the first round. Byrne didn't play on Saturday, and Florence scored a 14-4 win over Mission-Arlee-Charlo before losing to Loyola.
Plains/Hot Springs will be the third seed at state after posting a 17-9 win over Manhattan in the fourth-place game. Dakota Butcher and Izzy Butcher each tallied four RBIs, and Kenzie Angle drove in three more runs. The Trotters started their day with a 13-9 win over Deer Lodge in the first round before losing to Loyola in the undefeated semifinals. They then scored a 3-0 win over Anaconda in a loser-out game to qualify for state and advance to face Manhattan.
Manhattan will be the fourth seed at state, earning the berth by erasing a 10-5 deficit to score a 12-11 win over Mission-Arlee-Charlo. Manhattan's Amy Grevious tied the game in the bottom of the seventh inning by driving in Daela Didriksen on an RBI single with no outs. Natalie Scott had the game-winning hit, driving in Grevious with a two-out single to center field.
Mission-Arlee-Charlo came up one win short of making it to state for the second season in a row. The Bulldogs had beaten Anaconda, 16-6, in the first round but then lost to Florence, 14-4, in the undefeated semifinals, sending them to the loser-out game against Manhattan.