MISSOULA — Melanie Meuchel saw the email and a social media post at almost the exact same time.
The Montana softball coach was sitting in her office at the school catching up with her assistants when news broke on March 18 that the Big Sky Conference canceled all spring sports because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Her heart dropped. The Grizzlies’ dreams were dashed.
Meuchel forwarded the email to the entire team. She then started calling each of the players, who were mostly out of town for spring break, to talk them through the fact that their season abruptly ended after getting off to the best 24-game start in program history.
“Sharing the news was hard,” said the third-year head coach, whose Grizzlies would’ve opened Big Sky Conference play this Saturday. “These young ladies really get the big picture of life. They’re so considerate of so many people, although they’re hurting because something from them has been taken away.
"I think they really care about where we are currently in the world and what’s sitting in front of us. Our worlds have been slightly shocked as Griz softball, but our worlds have been shocked more as humans at this point.”
Meuchel and the Grizzlies were hopeful they’d be able to play some of the remainder of their season when they met a few days before heading off for spring break. The NCAA had canceled all spring championships around 2 p.m. on March 12, meaning there’d be no national tournament. But the Grizzlies thought they could still play out the regular season and conference tournament.
The Big Sky suspended spring sports indefinitely around five hours later at 7 p.m. and was expected to reevaluate the situation April 15. Montana’s trip to the state of Utah for five games from March 18-20 was canceled, so players were allowed to go home during the week off from school.
“I think they had a little bit of reality that life is a little different right now,” said Meuchel, whose focus now is making sure her players stay up to date on their academics as UM goes to online learning as part of social distancing. “I think there was still so much hope that there could be a chance that we could continue on with the season that we were enjoying so much, enjoying being around each other, enjoying competing together.”
The Grizzlies’ scheduled home opener April 1 after 32 games away from Missoula was already called off, as was their first conference home series from April 4-5. Then it was all gone, ripped away from a team that was putting together a season that was sure to bring out the supportive fan base in droves.
The Griz had become the first team in the six years of program history to beat a ranked opponent by topping then-No. 23 Arkansas of the SEC and following up with another Power Five team against Michigan State of the Big Ten. They started 4-0, boasted the second-best record among all conference teams at 12-12 and nearly notched another Power Five win, losing to then-No. 18 Texas Tech in extra innings.
“We had some big wins, and we had some great games, and we had some things we were learning from along the lines and just felt like we were starting to catch some ground,” Meuchel said. “We hadn’t played at home yet in front of our fans. There were a lot of things we were hopeful for.”
Things were trending in the right direction as Meuchel was seeing the tone the team set in the fall season being carried over to the spring.
Montana led the Big Sky in team ERA, batting average against, strikeout-to-walk ratio and fielding percentage. Junior Tristin Achenbach was named the Big Sky pitcher of the week for the second and third times in her career, leading the league with 76 strikeouts, ranking fourth with 2.57 ERA and being fifth with .256 BAA.
Senior Michaela Hood, who finally rediscovered her groove after an injury derailed most of the past two seasons, was named the Big Sky pitcher of the week for the fourth time in her career. She led in the first league with a .230 batting average against, second with a 2.13 ERA and second with 71 strikeouts.
The offense was slowly coming around, leading the Big Sky in home runs but also in most strikeouts. Sophomore Maygen McGrath ranked fourth in the league with a .662 slugging percentage and seventh with a .338 batting average. Junior Cami Sellers was sixth with a .404 on-base percentage, ninth with a .541 slugging percentage and 14th with a .297 batting average. Sophomore Brooklyn Weisgram was named the league’s player of the week once.
“We were really starting to put it to play and get some reward back for it,” Meuchel said. “I thought they had great leadership from our senior leaders and upperclassmen. Our freshmen really kind of completed us. It was a very fun group, a group that we enjoyed each and every day that we got. That is unfortunate that we won’t know where we could have gone with it, but I think that’s a driving force for the next group.”
Montana had been picked tied for third in the preseason Big Sky poll. The Griz were showing in non-conference play that they could be a serious contender as they tried to make it back to the NCAA tournament for the second time in four seasons.
If so, the seniors would’ve been able to start and end their careers with a Big Sky tournament title. And it could’ve been the second time Montana made the national tournament under a third-year head coach, pulling off the feat under Jamie Pinkerton, who launched the program.
“The foundation of Griz softball from former athletes that have come through has been phenomenal, and each person has really impacted this program,” Meuchel said. “This group really rose to the challenge that people put forward. We will never know, but I think that at this point we can walk away accepting that we’re proud of the efforts that we put into our season and were never content with it but just proud of the work and effort we put in.”
The Grizzlies could potentially lose just four seniors: Hood, Anne Mari Petrino, Kylie Hayton and Morgan Johnson. The NCAA Division I Council Committee is expected to vote March 30 about whether or not to allow seniors in spring sports an extra year of eligibility.
Meuchel is in favor of granting that year but pointed to issues that have to ironed out, namely roster sizes and finances of extra scholarships because high school seniors have already been signed. Other possible issues to consider are if seniors not on scholarship want to pay for another year of college to play their sport one more time or if they already have job prospects they don’t want to pass up.
“I’m all for it,” Meuchel said. “I would accept our four seniors back with open arms. I think that they are true Griz. I think that they’re great leaders and they’re skilled athletes. I would love to have them be a part of this program and finish their careers completely. But those are still some very open questions that the NCAA will have to completely come up with a solution.”