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Loyola's McKenna Bessette

Loyola's McKenna Bessette throws a pitch against Hamilton on Monday. Bessette took a tough-luck loss despite allowing just two hits and striking out 11 in four innings of work.

MISSOULA — When Loyola junior McKenna Bessette dislocated her left kneecap during volleyball tryouts this past fall, she underwent knee surgery for the third time in just over four years.

During the recovery process, Bessette transferred from Big Sky to Loyola, and transfer rules forced her to sit out of softball even longer than her rehab. But none of that deterred the ace pitcher, who had missed two of the previous four seasons, from working hard so she’d be ready to return to the diamond with a bang this spring.

“It’s weird to say this, but it got easier. Not mentally but physically got easier because I knew what I needed to do to come back,” Bessette said. “I knew I would be able to come back because it’s softball and I could just never quit softball.”

Loyola is sure happy Bessette, a fourth-generation softball player who’s played for 10 years, didn’t hang up her cleats. The Breakers already had an ace pitcher in Kayla Hickethier but struggled to a 3-6 start. They’ve gone 7-3 since Bessette’s debut, including 5-1 in games she’s pitched, and have turned themselves into state contenders out of the Western B-C. At 7-4 in conference games, they’ve moved from fifth in the standings to third and can potentially finish in a tie for second.

In six starts, Bessette has thrown four shutouts, including a four-inning no-hitter and a five-inning perfect game in which she struck out every batter. She even pitched a two-hit shutout against two-time defending State B-C champion Florence and has gone 2-1 against Class A schools, including a one-hitter against Ronan in her season debut.

“That was definitely the worst game as far as nerves,” Bessette said of Ronan. “But after having played for so many years and sitting out from injuries, I was like, ‘You know what, let’s do this,’ and just dove head first into it.”

Through 34 innings, Bessette has a miniscule ERA of 0.62 and a WHIP of 0.47. With accuracy on her fastball, changeup and rise ball, she’s tallied 74 strikeouts and just seven walks. Having faced 120 batters, that means she’s struck out 61.7 percent of them.

Even more mind numbing is that over her past three starts (13 innings) she has 38 strikeouts and just 31 called balls.

“She’s really mastered her pitches,” Loyola coach Brian Bessette said. “She can hit her locations and can change speeds. It’s fun to call a game for her because I call the spots and she hits them. She’s a competitor, and if it’s a tense situation, she just digs deeper. That’s what we want.”

When she’s not pitching, Bessette adds a defensive presence at first base. It’s a position where she doesn’t need to run too much since she previously had two surgeries on a dislocated right kneecap.

Those injuries forced her to miss her 13-U and 14-U seasons, so she jumped from 12-U softball to starting at first base for Big Sky’s varsity team as a freshman. She pitched occasionally that year before taking on a larger pitching role for her summer travel team and for Big Sky last year as a sophomore.

“I have to realize there’s some stuff I’ll never be able to do really well again, like run,” McKenna Bessette said of her injuries. “I’m OK with that. It’s alright. I just have to work hard for it, and I know I’m capable of getting back where I was.”

She continued: “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel completely back to normal. But it’s just when I feel like I’m at my best. I feel like I’m reaching that peak right now.”

Alongside Bessette, Hickethier has started to heat up. They combined to pitch four consecutive games without giving up a hit last week, and they make a fearsome duo that could potentially carry Loyola deep in the postseason.

“She’s an amazing pitcher,” McKenna Bessette said of Hickethier. “She really pushes me and inspires me to be better. I’m really glad I have her pitching next to me because we are a good duo.”

Frenchtown heads to state

Frenchtown has secured a berth into the State A tournament May 23-25 in Polson and is nearing at least a share of the Southwest A title.

The Broncs sit at 7-1 in conference games with two games to go and can finish anywhere from first to third. The top three teams qualify for state since the Southwest A doesn’t play a divisional tournament.

Second-place Stevensville (4-2) and third-place Hamilton (5-3) are the teams who could tie or finish ahead of Frenchtown. After a head-to-head tiebreaker, the next tiebreaker is run differential in the two games against the opposing team; Frenchtown beat Stevensville 13-3 in their first meeting, while Hamilton holds an 8-5 win on aggregate over Frenchtown.

Sentinel secures crown

With a 10-2 conference record, Sentinel has secured at least a share of the Western AA regular-season crown and could be the sole champion pending the outcome of the Glacier-Flathead game on Thursday.

If Glacier (9-2) loses to Flathead (2-9), the Spartans will be the outright champion based on record and will be the No. 1 seed to the divisional tournament in Missoula.

If Glacier wins, both teams would finish 10-2. Since they split their regular-season series, the next tiebreaker is record against the remaining top teams in the division. In the Western AA, Helena Capital has finished third. Glacier went 2-0 against Capital and Sentinel went 1-1, so the Wolfpack would be the first seed.

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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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