MISSOULA — Montana is a tough state to beat in the summertime when it comes to the weather. 

And with clear skies finally projected for the foreseeable future in Missoula, adult recreational leagues around town are in full swing.

With them is the women's fast-pitch softball league, Missoula's first in quite some time. In year three of its existence, the league has grown significantly and is looking to expand even more. 

Whether players want to relive their glory days or just get out and exercise and meet new people in the process, the fast-pitch league offers it all.

As captain Bonni Shaffer puts it, "We're a bunch of has-beens that are trying to get back into it."

A funny sentiment, but when the high school and college playing days are over, it's the next best thing for those who love the game. 

"A lot of us played together in high school, the others are friends of friends," Shaffer added. "They came out and wanted to give it a shot. Some returned from last year who had never played before and they like to be involved in something."

Shaffer is a 2009 graduate of Hellgate High School, as is fellow captain Jordan Johnson. Shaffer's father, Brad Shaffer, is the head coach at Hellgate, so softball runs in the family. 

"We were the second-place team at state in 2009 so we're just hanging onto that. Let's bring it back," Shaffer said with a big laugh. 

Shaffer and Johnson always wanted to get a women's fast-pitch league started again Missoula. They estimate the last one that existed was about 15 years ago. And once they had enough friends who seemed committed to giving it a shot, away they went. 

In the first year, Johnson said the group of about five women got out and played only a couple of times. Last year they had anywhere from six to nine players and had a team and were able to practice and everything. With those numbers, they competed against the men's fast-pitch league which was fun but had its challenges. 

Last Wednesday was the group's first practice and meeting of the summer and 18 women showed up to play, double what they had a year ago. That was enough to get two teams out there to play, which is the goal so players can play and practice in real game-like settings. 

"We're just hoping year after year it grows and expands and we have our own women's league," Johnson said.

The mood at Wednesday's practice was a light one.

Players took the field at 6 p.m., practicing infield drills, including double-play rotations with a light-hearted approach. Music blared in the background and players teased each other on mistakes and cheered when passes were completed.

The league uses the field located on the corner of Spurgin Rd. and Tower St., right next to the Dale Dahlgren Baseball Field every Wednesday. 

"It's very relaxed and we all know each other really well, so that makes it even more relaxed," Johnson said. "We can probably make it a little more professional but right now we just need numbers. We'd like for it to head that way as a little more organized and serious.

"This year is the first year that we've had girls who we don't know at all and who just show up on their own, which is really cool. It's growing each year and we're hoping it continues."

Fast-pitch softball is no joke at any level and can be difficult for new players. Some at Wednesday's practice were looking for that level of competitiveness and difficulty that maybe they couldn't find in a slow-pitch league. 

Elizabeth Halverson, who graduated from Hellgate in 2011, joined because she knew most of the women for a long time. Halverson grew up loving softball and watching her father play on that exact same field, so she was looking for any excuse to get back on the diamond and play fast-pitch again. 

"Last year was my first experience with a women's fast-pitch league in Missoula and so it was really cool to see how the guys kind of took us on as little ducklings and let us play with them last year," Halverson said. "It was intimidating at times but it was a lot of fun and we got a lot of experience. 

"We kind of realized we could get more ladies out here if it was just a women's league. All levels are welcome and we have a lot of people who have been playing for a long time and lot who this is their first time playing. So it's really exciting to see everybody progress together."

Along with getting enough teams, Shaffer added that a fast-pitch team from Butte was interested in competing against Missoula. The teams got the OK to use the facilities in Drummond, so they are hoping that later in the summer they can maybe meet up and play there.

But that is another goal they hope to achieve down the road. For now, they're just enjoying seeing the league start to find a life of its own. 

"I think we can put together a little tournament by the end of the summer and that's all you can hope for when you're trying to start a league is get an organized event out there," Shaffer said. "I think we're getting there."

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Kyle Hansen covers Griz men's basketball and more for the Missoulian and 406mtsports.com. Email him at kyle.hansen@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @khansen406

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