MISSOULA — Michaela Hood’s time on the softball diamond at Montana was marked by the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

The Las Vegas native experienced instant success, keying the pitching staff in the Grizzlies’ run to their first Big Sky Conference tournament title in 2017. Then injuries struck, plaguing her for most of the next two seasons and leaving her struggling to excel in the circle.

Unwilling to give up, Hood worked her way back into form and began to look like her old self as a senior, recapturing some of the magic she had as a freshman. But it was all torn away when the coronavirus pandemic hit and led to the cancellation of sports this spring.

The NCAA allowed athletes in spring sports an extra year of eligibility. It was a tempting option for Hood, who owns two school pitching records despite an up-and-down career and shortened senior year, but she knew it was time to leave even though her stock was once again going up.

“It was a really hard decision and took me a couple weeks to make,” Hood said. “I had prepared myself already that softball was coming to an end. I had talked to my fellow seniors and knew they weren’t coming back. I didn’t want to come back by myself. I wanted to come in with my class and graduate with my class.

“I had all these plans and was ready to go back home. It was hard because I didn’t want to leave my teammates hanging after this season that didn’t get to happen. It had to end at some point. I just felt like I was ready.”

Hood isn’t entirely hanging up her cleats. She’s planning on being a volunteer coach with the UNLV softball team next season in her hometown.

That opportunity came about when Hood was pitching for the Griz at the Marucci Desert Classic this past February. She threw a two-hitter against UNLV in a 2-0 loss, impressing Rebels coach Kristie Fox, who later offered Hood a spot to volunteer in the future.

“I really wanted to go home to Vegas, so if it was any other school, I don’t think I would do it,” Hood said. “It’s just the fact that it’s UNLV and it’s home and I’m used to it, I know the area, I know the people.”

That opportunity could potentially turn into a graduate assistant spot when Hood begins grad school at UNLV after a year off. There’s always the possibility she could get into coaching full time, but for now, it’s more likely she’ll continue offering pitching lessons to younger players.

Hood wants to one day work in a high school as either a psychology teacher, counselor or psychologist. She majored in psychology at UM after realizing elementary education wasn’t for her and will continue that path by getting a master’s degree in school psychology.

“I didn’t really know I had a knack for helping people and dealing with people’s problems until my sophomore or junior year of college,” Hood said. “It just sounded interesting, and I’m pretty good at it, so I decided to stick with it. The parts of the brain and how we think things, like where our behavior comes from, that’s really interesting to me.”

Hood’s psychological and physical abilities helped propel to her to the success she’s had over the past decade and a half after starting softball when she was about 6 years old. She got into pitching around 9 or 10, was offered by the Griz as a high school junior and helped lead her team to the state softball title as a senior.

Then it was off to UM, where Hood put the exclamation on her freshman year by throwing 385 pitches in three days at the conference tournament to help the Griz capture their first crown in just their third year of existence. She was named first-team all-conference, was the tourney MVP, led the Big Sky in strikeouts (178), and was second in wins (18-7) and ERA (2.31).

Hood’s next two seasons were hampered by a forearm injury that led to the deterioration of her physical ability and a mental battle when success no longer came easy. Her ERA bloated to 5.48 as a junior and she had just nine total wins across her sophomore and junior seasons. She got sage advice after her junior year, deciding to prioritize arm flexibility over muscle bulk, and the positive results came pouring this spring as her power and command of her pitches began to return.

“Michaela is a real fun individual,” Montana coach Melanie Meuchel said, “Because, I don’t know if you’d call her a silent storm or what, but she is one of the most kind-hearted people, but when she gets on that mound, she is a competitor, and she will compete, and she wants to win, so it’s fun to work with her on a daily basis.

“She came in with such power and presence as a freshman, and I think she was ending her career with even a little bit more power and a little bit more presence. She was taking major strides forward and becoming the best pitcher that she was in her career in her senior year.”

Hood was named the Big Sky Conference pitcher of the week in February, her fourth career award and her first since early in her sophomore year, after she pitched the Griz to a 5-0 win over No. 23 Arkansas, the program’s first-ever victory against a ranked team.

Hood had put together single-season career bests in ERA (2.13) and batting average against (.230) as she helped the Griz get off to the best 24-game start. She added three wins and 71 strikeouts in her shortened senior campaign to work her way into ending her career with the most wins (30) and strikeouts (388) in program history.

“It’s really nice to have those records, but I wouldn’t say I don’t want someone else to break them,” Hood said. “I really hope Tristin (Achenbach) does and brings home another ring for them. Records don’t mean as much to me as anything else. It’s about bringing home wins. I like that I have those records, but I wouldn’t be upset if I didn’t.”

Of course Hood wants to see her teammates continue to have success when she’s gone. They were an integral part in making her time at Montana, through all the ups and down, the instant success and injury struggles, memorable for many reasons.

“I’m going to miss not having them all the time to talk to or be by my side,” Hood said. “I’ll never forget the memories and friends I made and how much better of a person I became here in Montana. I don’t think I can sum it up in one way because it’s too big, it’s too meaningful.”

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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