Another team’s senior day. A wind blowing out to center. A 4-0 deficit after one inning of play. None of it was enough to slow Montana’s roll.
The Grizzlies rallied for a 10-6 victory over Southern Utah on Sunday afternoon in Cedar City to finish off a three-game sweep of the Thunderbirds and go into the postseason on an eight-game winning streak.
Montana (24-29, 10-8 BSC) will take the No. 3 seed into the Big Sky Conference Championship, which opens Wednesday at Sacramento State.
The Grizzlies will face No. 6 Northern Colorado at 12:30 p.m. (MT) at Shea Stadium.
“We’re excited about what we’re doing and the way we’re competing and the outcomes we’re getting because of it,” said second-year coach Melanie Meuchel, who was an assistant coach with the Grizzlies in 2017, the last time they entered the second week of May with this much momentum.
“The belief this team has right now is pretty fun to be around.”
Montana landed the first punch in Games 1 and 2 on Saturday, building a 6-0 lead in the opener, a 13-0 advantage in the second game.
Southern Utah scored four runs in the bottom of the first off Griz starter Tristin Achenbach on Sunday in Game 3, including back-to-back squeeze bunts with a runner at third.
This time it would require a counter-punch.
Those finally started landing in the top of the third. The first was a two-run home run by Morgan Johnson that made it 4-2.
Maddy Stensby tied it later in the inning at 4-4 when she stepped in as a pinch-hitter with the bases loaded and two outs and drove a 3-2 pitch back up the middle to score two.
The home run for Johnson highlighted the type of weekend series rarely seen in program history. She went 8 for 11 (.727) with three home runs. She drove in six and scored six times.
But Montana trailed again entering the fourth, 5-4, after Southern Utah hit a solo home run to lead off the bottom of the third.
“The first time we came here (in 2016), we felt like there were a couple of pop flies that might be in the infield and they ended up catching the fence or going over the fence,” said Meuchel.
“So we kind of know when we come here that we’re going to see a lot of wind and balls that have a tendency to travel. It’s a lively field and lively park, so no lead is ever comfortable.”
Southern Utah’s one-run advantage didn’t hold up very long.
Montana took advantage of a pair of walks to load the bases in the top of the fourth, which brought to the plate Maygen McGrath with two outs.
She lifted a fly ball to left that traveled over the fence to give the Grizzlies their first lead of the day, 8-5, and the program its first grand slam since Delene Colburn did it against Seattle in March 2017.
Pitching from ahead for the first time, Achenbach worked a 1-2-3 fourth, then repeated it in the fifth. She was given a 10-5 lead when Katie Pippel ripped a two-run double to right in the top of the sixth.
Achenbach gave up a solo home run in the sixth, then ended the game with a strikeout with two on in the bottom of the seventh to improve to 7-6 with her sixth career complete game.
Johnson also had three infield singles on her way to a four-hit day. McGrath added three hits and the four RBIs from her grand slam.
Cami Sellers, who has reached base in 26 consecutive games, scored three times, with the four players behind her in the lineup going 10 for 15.
Nine players had hits on Sunday as Montana finished the series with a .461 batting average. The Grizzlies out-hit the Thunderbirds over the three games 47-24.
“A lot of players are stepping up and taking pride in what they’re doing. They want to be the one who does it, then pass that on to the next to see what they can do,” said Meuchel.
Montana closed the regular season winning nine of its final 12 Big Sky games to move up to the No. 3 seed, with series sweeps of Portland State, Northern Colorado and Southern Utah.
The Grizzlies have won 13 of their last 16 overall. Montana won 13 of its final 16 regular-season games in 2017 as well, when it went to Ogden and won the Big Sky tournament without dropping a game.
“I think we’re pretty comfortable where we are,” said Meuchel. “We have a lot of belief in ourselves and what we’re doing. We’re pretty excited to get out on the field on Wednesday again and compete.”
Weber State is the tournament’s No. 1 seed. The Wildcats and No. 2 Idaho State both earned a bye with their top-two finishes.
Prior to Montana facing Northern Colorado on Wednesday, No. 4 Sacramento State will face No. 5 Portland State, with the winner advancing to play Weber State that afternoon.
The four-day, double-elimination tournament goes through Saturday.