MISSOULA — Longtime Missoula-area softball managers Dennis Staves and Tim Gray couldn’t turn down their granddaughters’ request to coach their tee-ball last year.

So the duo returned to the diamond less than one year after retiring from softball to coach the team of 4- and 5-year-olds.

After two seasons of that, Staves and Gray felt the lure to again lead the ZooTown All-Stars, a 16-and-under Senior League Softball team that they guided to the 2015 World Series title and to four consecutive regional titles from 2014-17 before stepping down.

The All-Stars failed to extend that streak in 2018, but Staves and Gray are hoping to help ZooTown get back to its winning ways when the West Regional begins on Friday at the Dale Clawson Complex.

“We missed it,” Staves, a longtime Missoula Big Sky softball coach, said on Thursday ahead of the opening ceremonies.

“Yeah we miss it,” added Gray, a former Missoula Sentinel softball coach.

“We miss being together,” Staves continued. “We have a great time together. The strategy sessions, the coaches meetings. That’s one of the reasons we do it is because we have so much fun together doing it.”

“And interacting with the girls,” Gray interjected. “When you’ve been coaching softball as long as Dennis and I have been, you can’t just turn it off. You still think about it. You still go to games and you think, ‘Why didn’t she bunt there?’ You need to scratch that itch.”

Also joining the coaching staff is Taylor Brinkman, a former ZooTown player and a Sentinel grad. Brinkman was a part of the regional title-winning teams in 2016 and 2017.

“We’re pretty excited to have a player that’s been with us twice to the World Series come back and help us out,” Gray said. “She’s been really helpful. She gives a different perspective, and she’s fun to be around.”

Youthful excitement

ZooTown is a young team with only four players who’ve competed in a West Regional before: Big Sky junior Makennah Hewitt, Big Sky sophomore Kaysen Brown, and Sentinel freshmen Jadyn Gagner and Charlee Hoover.

Two of them, Hewitt and Brown, were on the 2017 team that went to the World Series.

Even with the youth, Staves feels there’s ample talent on the 15-player team.

“I think the biggest problem we have right now is trying to play them all,” Staves said. “It’s going to be tough because they’re all really good players and you can only put nine out there at a time.”

ZooTown is expecting a rotation of four pitchers: Gagner, Hoover, and Frenchtown freshmen Kendra Jacobs and Olivia Campbell. The team has four different starting lineups depending on who’s pitching.

The rest of the team includes Big Sky sophomores Ava McPhillips, Abby Faulhaber and Emily Van Hoose; Frenchtown junior Khasidy Hodge; Frenchtown sophomore Juna Ashby; Loyola freshman Annie Badaruddin; homeschooled sophomore Claire Moody; Hellgate Middle School eighth grader Grace Hood; and Washington Middle School eighth grader Delaney Laird.

“The pitching’s going to do a good job,” Staves said. “It’s going to help us an awful lot. The fact that we can change it up is going to help us a lot.”

“We’re just going to play solid ball and be consistent,” Gray added. “I don’t know that there’s one aspect of the game that stands out over the others.”

“We don’t know what we have until we turn them loose,” Staves concluded.

Road to redemption

In addition to ZooTown, the seven-team, round-robin tournament features state champions from Montana, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, Southern California and Washington. Northern California isn’t competing this year.

ZooTown opens pool play at 12:30 p.m. Friday against Hawaii, the team that beat them in last year's regional championship. The All-Stars will then take on the Montana state champion from Billings at 3:30 p.m.

“It’s a big first day. Thanks to the scheduling guys for giving us Hawaii right out of the gates,” Gray said with a laugh.

On Saturday, ZooTown will face Washington at 9 a.m. and Southern California at 12:30 p.m.

Pool play closes on Sunday, with ZooTown facing Nevada at 9 a.m. and Arizona at 3 p.m.

In the elimination rounds, the No. 4 seed plays the No. 5 seed and the No. 3 seed plays the No. 6 seed at 6 p.m. Sunday in the quarterfinals. The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds earn a bye into the semifinals at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The championship game will be 6 p.m. Tuesday.

The regional tournament winner advances to the Senior League Softball World Series in Sussex County, Delaware, from July 29-Aug. 4.

For Staves and Gray, just being back coaching the ZooTown All-Stars is already a good first win.

“It feels great,” Staves said. “We’re not hitting off of tees. You don’t have to tell them where first base is. This is fantastic.”

Added Gray: “It’s amazing. It’s wonderful. I’m excited to get back out there and get going."

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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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