Until dethroned in tournament play, Great Falls Russell will still be the State AA softball champion. With only three players gone from the team that won it all a year ago, the other seven tournament teams should expect a fight.
The defending champs are also this year’s Eastern Division No. 1 seed, entering the tournament Thursday in their home town with an 18-3 record and one of the two cleanest paths to Saturday’s title bout.
“They just want to take care of business,” Russell coach Lindsey Graham said of her girls. “They stay focused on what we need to do. The kids constantly come to practice with a willingness to get better.”
That’s a scary prospect for the rest of the state. The Rustlers won their seventh state title as a second seed in 2012 and have the benefit of a No. 1 this time around. They also return both their star pitchers, senior Alissa Keller and sophomore Quinn Hartman, who helped carry the team to a title last year.
But there will be some challengers to the repeat bid. Missoula Big Sky, the second seed from the West that draws East No. 3 Great Falls High in the first round, has a potential matchup with the Rustlers on the horizon should the Eagles defeat the Bison in Round 1.
For the Eagles (14-8) to make some noise in Great Falls during their fourth-straight trip to state, Big Sky must prove that the mental mistakes that hounded the team earlier in the year have truly been exorcised. Big Sky stood strong in the field in its divisional round series with Kalispell Flathead last week, committing only one error in two games with no other costly mistakes that impacted the scoring.
“It seems like all of a sudden we’ve decided, we’ve picked it up a lot,” Big Sky coach Dennis Staves said. “They’re just kind of putting it together.”
That’s a good sign for Big Sky. When the Eagles aren’t spotting the other team runs, they’re hard to keep up with offensively. The team has 28 home runs in 22 games this season. Combine that with a rising pitcher in Kendall Rauk and Big Sky could have all three legs of the tripod spoken for.
Rauk, a freshman, got to the pitching circle mid-season but hasn’t left much since. She’s started all but one game since the second week of April. As long as her arm – and her psyche — can hold up, Big Sky has a shot at an upset or two.
“(Coach Staves) keeps telling me that I’ve been doing good lately,” Rauk said. “They just believe in me.”
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The young pitcher has never had this kind of workload before. Does she think she can hold up for a title push?
“You want to start throwing more, you’ve got to ice,” she said, laughing. “I’m definitely going to ice, definitely going to ice, just got to get ready for state.”
Big Sky, which won championships in 2005 and 2006, will have company among the contenders of the Western Division. No. 1 seed Kalispell Glacier bypassed the divisional round after winning the league in the regular season with a 10-2 record in conference. The Wolfpack is 14-5 overall and draws Butte High in the first round.
Glacier is less reliant on one workhorse arm the way Big Sky has become. Pitchers Jenna Willis and Ali Williams both have no-hit potential each time out and help their own cause at the plate, too.
The Wolfpack hasn’t made a state appearance since 2010 and is seeking its first state title in the school’s brief six-year existence.
Of Glacier’s two league losses this year, one came to Big Sky in a 4-3 decision at the end of April. The other loss came to Helena High, which was ousted from state contention by Missoula Sentinel last week.
The Spartans, the fourth and lowest seed out of the West, traveled to Helena to win a best-of-three series that bought them a ticket to Great Falls. They were the only road team to qualify for state with a divisional series win. If that road was rocky, the next one is full of boulders. The Rustlers are up next in the first round.
But the pressure isn’t really on the Spartans, a 9-14 team, to win. It’s on Great Falls Russell not to lose.
“We’ve got nothing to lose; we’re going in as the underdog. We had to go on the road to win to get in so we’re not expected to knock off the defending state champions,” Sentinel coach Tim Gray said. “It can make you dangerous. Looseness, confidence can be a dangerous thing.”
Like CMR, Gray sees his pitching staff as his team’s strength. Hurlers Mandy Jackson and Taylor Laden have kept Sentinel in the games they’ve won as well as keeping most of the losses competitive. It was Jackson’s two victories in the divisional series that helped Sentinel make its fourth straight state appearance.
“I think the whole season kind of prepares us (for the playoffs),” Jackson said. “We get used to playing away games and this year we were way more closely bonded than in years past.”
The first round of action is scheduled to begin Thursday with two games at 2 p.m. and two more at 4 p.m. The championship is slated for Saturday evening.
Reporter AJ Mazzolini can be reached at (406) 781-3919 or at email@example.com.