SACRAMENTO — The Montana softball team dropped its opening game of the Big Sky Conference Championship on Wednesday afternoon, falling to No. 6 Northern Colorado, 1-0, at Sacramento State’s Shea Stadium.
The Grizzlies, the No. 3 seed, gave up a run in the top of the first, and it would be the only run scored as Montana was shut out for just the second time in its last 30 games.
Pre-tournament momentum was on the side of the Grizzlies, who closed the regular season winning their final eight games and 13 of their last 16.
The Bears, who earned a postseason spot thanks to Montana’s sweep at Southern Utah last weekend, lost their final nine games of the regular season, including three in Missoula late last month.
But none of that mattered on Wednesday, not with Valerie Vidal’s pitching and Montana’s struggles at the plate.
The Grizzlies, who had some hard-hit outs, had just four hits off Vidal and went 1 for 10 with runners on base, 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position.
“I thought she threw well,” Griz coach Melanie Meuchel said. “We hit some balls well, some that didn’t fall, but when we needed to execute with runners on, we did not come through with a timely hit or move runners when we needed to.”
Colleen Driscoll got the start for Montana and gave up a two-out, run-scoring single to left in the top of the first.
There was little reason to believe it would be the deciding at-bat, not against a Montana team that was coming off a 31-run, 47-hit series at Southern Utah.
But that offense was kept in check by Vidal.
She walked two in the second, putting two one with one out, and got out of the jam. Her other big moment came in the fifth, against a familiar antagonist.
Cami Sellers had two game-winning home runs in the teams’ series in Missoula. Both came off Vidal, a walk-off shot in the bottom of the seventh in Game 1, the winning runs in the bottom of the sixth in Game 3.
Sellers would come to the plate with runners on second and third and two outs in the bottom of the fifth after Reilly Williams led off the inning with a pinch-hit single and Lexi Knauss came through with a two-out double.
Vidal struck Sellers out to end the third. She would do it again to end the fifth, a swinging miss on a 2-2 pitch, leaving two runners stranded in scoring position.
No pitcher had struck out Sellers twice in a game since March 8.
Montana got a two-out single from Katie Pippel in the sixth, but that would be the final baserunner of the day for the Grizzlies, who went down in order in the bottom of the seventh.
It pinned a hard-luck loss on Driscoll, who would give up five hits while striking out three in three innings of work.
Tristin Achenbach pitched the final four innings and set the Bears down in order in the fourth, fifth and sixth. But the rally Montana needed would never come.
“You don’t want to start out giving up a run in the top of the first, but I thought they kept us in it,” Meuchel said of her two pitchers.
“We tried to compete and get some things done at the plate. We just didn’t have the timely hits.”
The good news is that it’s a double-elimination tournament. The not-so-good news is that Montana now has to win five straight games over the next three days without another loss if it wants to win a championship.
The Grizzlies will face No. 5 seed Portland State at noon MT on Thursday. Portland State beat No. 4 Sacramento State, 2-1, in 11 innings but then lost to No. 1 seed Weber State, 3-2, in 10 innings.