GREAT FALLS – Most everyone’s heard of the walk-off home run or walk-off hit. But the walk-off strikeout? That’s a little more obscure.
It’s the form Missoula Big Sky’s heartbreak took on Friday in the bottom of the seventh inning of the finals of the State AA softball tournament. A dropped third strike and some errant throws allowed the winning run to round all four bases, handing Billings West the championship in a bizarre 3-2 ending.
The Golden Bears (23-8), who came all the way back through the consolation bracket after a loss to these same Eagles on Thursday, beat Big Sky 2-0 in nine innings just two hours earlier Friday to force a decisive second game because of the tournament’s double-elimination format.
Then came one of the strangest plays in softball.
With one out in a 2-2 game, West's Kendyl Boltz struck out swinging on an offering from Big Sky pitcher Kendall Rauk, who relieved the Eagles’ fatigued star Macey Newbary in the fourth. The ball got away from the catcher, allowing Boltz to make a break for first base.
The catcher’s throw went wide in her attempt to complete the strikeout, rolling the ball into the outfield acreage. Boltz made second with no trouble and took the turn heading for third as another Big Sky throwing error gave her enough room to find her way all the way home for the game-winning run.
“I just thought, ‘Keep going!’ ” Boltz said. “This is our motto of our team. Don’t give up.
“Strikeouts have their advantages, I guess,” she added as her team doused for a congratulatory bottled-water shower at Great Falls’ Multi-Sports Complex.
The Bears didn’t give up after losing to Big Sky 1-0 in the first round Thursday. West needed six wins in consolation play, five on Friday alone, to claim its first state title since 2010.
Big Sky’s (20-8) tremendous tournament was left to end on such a sour note. The Eagles blew through their first three games as Western AA’s No. 3 seed on the back of Newbary, who finished the tournament with 69 strikeouts to one walk. She dueled West’s Jalen Creech pitch for pitch in the first title game that went to extras.
Newbary struck out 13 in that contest and allowed just four hits, though West really only needed one. Ashley Davis singled home Taylor Ostwald in the ninth for the game’s only RBI, breaking a 0-0 deadlock.
Big Sky had only four hits as well – two from Morgan Johnson – but the Eagles left all four on base with two in scoring position.
“I think the game that probably lost it for us – we had some opportunities in that first game,” Big Sky coach Dennis Staves said. “All we had to do was score a run and that game was over.”
Creech struck out 15, but didn’t start the second contest with the same dominance. Johnson belted a solo shot to lead off the game and, after West tied it in the bottom half of the first, Johnson doubled and scored on a Kendall Mooney single in the fifth that put Big Sky in line for its first title since back-to-back crowns in 2005-06.
“That outside pitch kills ya,” Johnson commented on Creech’s approach. “She throws like a curve outside, which the spin throws you off a little bit.”
She finished 4 for 4 in the second game off the West ace.
The Eagles, who knocked off Great Falls CMR in the unbeaten semifinals earlier in the day, already have their sights set on repeating the path of the Golden Bears. No, not the five wins in one day thing. West took second behind Great Falls High at last year’s tournament before winning it all this time around.
“We’re already talking about next year,” said Johnson of a likely formidable 2015 Big Sky squad. “We’re going to come back to state the same way we came this year and we’re going to take first next year.”
Only senior Hope McCracken broke into the Eagles’ lineup from the Big Sky upperclassmen during this year’s tournament run. The Missoula team returns eight sophomores with starting experience, as well as a pair of freshmen.
Billings West 2, Missoula Big Sky 0
West 000 000 002 – 2 4 0
Big Sky 000 000 000 – 0 4 2
Jaleen Creech and Maranda Ratcliff; Macey Newbary and Jaime Schafer. W – Creech. L – Newbary.
WEST – Mayhood 0-3, Ostwald 1-4, Watterud 0-4, Davis 1-4, Dillon 1-4, Ratcliff 0-4, Creech 1-3, Shellnutt 0-2, Boltz 0-3.
BIG SKY – Johnson 2-3, Mooney 0-4, Newbary 0-4, Schafer 1-4, Preston 1-3, Todd 0-3, Snow 0-3, Rauk 0-3, McCracken 0-3.
2B – Ostwald. RBI – Davis.
Billings West 3, Missoula Big Sky 2
Big Sky 100 010 0 – 2 7 4
West 100 001 1 – 3 4 1
Newbary and Schafer; Creech and Ratcliff. W – Creech. L – Newbary.
BIG SKY – Johnson 4-4, Mooney 2-3, Newbary 0-4, Schafer 1-2, Preston 0-3, Todd 0-3, Snow 0-3, Rauk 0-3, McCracken 0-3.
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WEST – Mayhood 1-3, Ostwald 0-2, Watterud 0-2, Davis 1-3, Dillon 0-2, Ratcliff 1-3, Creech 1-2, Shellnutt 0-3, Boltz 0-3.
2B – Johnson, Mooney. 3B – Davis. HR – Johnson. RBIs – Johnson, Mooney, Davis, Ratcliff
Billings West 5, Great Falls CMR 4
CMR gave West three extra outs in the top of the seventh inning as the Bears responded to three Rustler runs in the sixth with three of their own.
The win moved West into the championship against Big Sky while the top-seeded Rustlers (18-4) finished in third place.
West’s Boltz hit a two-run single that tied the game in the eighth. Two more errors helped the Bears add the winning run.
West had only five hits off of CMR pitcher Quinn Hartmann, but four errors and a walk helped make the difference.
Madi Mahoney, who had two hits, picked up an RBI single in the seventh-inning rally that her team began while trailing 2-1. Kaydee Parsons also singled home a run.
Missoula Big Sky 3, Great Falls CMR 2
Newbary struck out 16 batters and unleashed a two-run home run to dead center field with her team trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning in the unbeaten semifinal. Jaime Schafer followed with a solo shot for back-to-back jacks in what would become the game-winner.
“I see Morgan (Johnson) on base and, oh jeez, I have to hit this ball,” Newbary said. “I saw the hit and thought she was going to catch it but no, it was sweet!”
After Mahoney hit an inside-the-park homer to bring CMR within a run – her third hit of the game – Newbary struck out the side to guarantee the Eagles no worse than second place.
The Missoula girls finished with just three hits off of CMR starter Hartman, two coming from Newbary. Hartman struck out 10 in six innings of work.
CMR 000 100 1 – 2 7 0
Big Sky 000 003 x – 3 3 0
Quinn Hartman and Erika Lankford. Macie Newbary and Jaime Schafer. W – Newbary. L – Hartman.
CMR – Kylie Otis 1-3, Caitlin Soltesz 1-3, Savanna Voyles 0-3, Quinn Hartman 2-3, McCall Enott 0-2, Madi Mahoney 3-3, Kaydee Parsons 0-3, Erika Lankford 0-3, Tiffany Lefebre 0-3, Shelby Vernon 0-0.
BIG SKY – Morgan Johnson 0-1, Kendall Mooney 0-3, Macie Newbary 1-3, Jaime Schafer 1-3, Quincy Preston 0-3, Chelsea Todd 0-2, Kiley Snow 0-2, Kendall Rauk 0-2, Hope McCracken 0-2, Kennedy Bahm 0-0.
2B – Mahoney 2. HR – Mahoney, Newbary, Schafer. RBI – Mahoney 2, Newbary 2, Schafer.
Billings West 9, Billings Skyview 2
The Golden Bears scored five in the bottom of the first inning to get the head start on Skyview in the fourth-place game. West moved on with the win, while Skyview’s season ended just short of a state trophy.
West leadoff hitter Lexi Mayhood set the pace with four hits. Boltz had a home run and four RBIs out of the No. 8 spot in the order.
West’s Creech held Skyview (16-11) to five hits and struck out eight. Erica Hall had two of those hits and Morgan Webster and Bekah Ellis each had RBIs.
Billings Skyview 10, Great Falls 8, 8 innings
Skyview rallied for two runs in each of the seventh and eighth innings to eliminate the Bison in extra innings a year after Great Falls won the tournament on its home field.
After Great Falls (16-8) retied things 8-8 in the bottom of the seventh, a Morgan Webster groundout scored Tyler Fleury. Bekah Ellis followed moments later with a ground-rule double for the second score.
Ellis finished 4 for 5 with four RBIs. Fleury and Erica Hall each had two hits.
Alyssa Marez was 4 for 4 for the Bison and Mikaela Kynett had three hits.
Billings West 8, Helena Capital 0
West’s marathon day started in the morning’s loser-out consolation game, a two-hitter by Creech.
The Bears pitcher struck out nine and held Capital to a pair of singles, one each from McKenzie Johnston and Destry McNellis.
West built a 4-0 lead after three innings and then really pulled away with four more in the top of the seventh inning off pitcher Brittany Smith. Mayhood and Rachel Dillon each had two RBIs. Mayhood was 3 for 4 with three runs scored as well.
Capital’s season ended at 18-6.