BELGRADE — After catching a high pop up to end the game Tuesday at the Belgrade Softball Complex, Tayler Thomas leapt into the air in celebration as teammates rushed out of the dugout.
It was a history-making out as Belgrade pulled off a late rally to upset No. 1 seed Billings Senior, 5-4, in a semifinal game at the Eastern AA Divisional. The Panthers not only advanced to Wednesday’s title game, but also clinched a berth to next week’s state tournament in their first season as a Class AA program.
“Takes a lot of pressure off going to state and knowing that our season’s continuing past tonight. That’s always a scary feeling coming into a day not knowing if today is your last day,” first-year Belgrade coach Joey Roberts said. “But I came in with a good feeling knowing that our girls would show up focused and energized.”
The Panthers will play No. 3 Billings West in the championship game at 10 a.m. Wednesday. The Bears defeated Great Falls 9-6 in the other semifinal, but the Bison also advance to state.
The fourth-seeded Panthers won twice Tuesday, knocking No. 5 Billings Skyview in the morning 14-5. A six-run fifth inning broke open a close contest and set up a third game against the Broncs.
Belgrade (17-5) had lost both regular season contests, including an 11-run defeat to the Broncs just two weeks ago. So Roberts decided he’d change things up in the circle if they met again in the semifinals.
Thomas was given the start and kept Senior off balance for much of the game. She scattered four hits and struck out four before being relieved by Arin Eaton, the team’s No. 1 pitcher, in the fifth.
“They haven’t seen Tayler much. I think they saw her for an inning max and they’ve seen Arin a lot,” Roberts said. “And Arin’s done well against them, but it was just seeing a pitcher over and over again. Tayler, coming in with that little bit change of pace, Tayler threw a great game, and Arin coming in and shutting the door was good.”
The Panthers loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the first and all three runners scored when Eaton sent a deep line drive to center that went off the glove of Paige Opp.
Senior scored two in the top of the second to make it 3-2, and that’s where the score stood until the sixth. The Broncs capitalized on a dropped third strike to get a runner on base and then went on to score twice en route to taking a 4-3 lead.
“I felt really confident our girls would battle back and respond,” Roberts said. “We’ve had a lot of great talks over the last couple of days of just mental approach.”
In the bottom half of the frame Eaton led off again and drilled a long fly ball to center that again went off of Opp’s glove. The junior, who initially thought the ball might clear the fence, advanced to second.
“I was kind of hoping. I was, ‘Come on go,’” Eaton said. “But I’m just happy that we scored on the next play. I was like, ‘Come on, just a little further.’”
On the next at-bat, Osler lined a double to center to score Eaton. The junior advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt and then scored the game-winning run on a sacrifice fly to center by Talyn Campbell.
“I had a great feeling with her coming up to bat. I had a feeling that something was going to happen, and, a double,” said Roberts. “Both of those two had a great approach in the box today and really lifted our team.”
While Senior (16-6) got a lead off double in the seventh from Darby May, and had runners on the corners with two outs, Eaton got out of the jam with back to back pop outs.
Belgrade was a fixture at state in Class A — the program won three consecutive championships from 2017-19. Players are excited to begin a new chapter in Class AA.
“It’s awesome,” Eaton said. “We’re definitely going to be a tough team to beat, and I’m excited.”
Belgrade also rallied to beat Skyview in a first round game, taking the lead for good in the third after trailing by a run. Eaton scattered five hits and struck out three but also got a huge play from her defense.
The Falcons had trimmed the deficit to 6-5 in the fourth and had runners on first and second with one out. That’s when right fielder Tycelee Bowler made a diving catch in shallow right and then doubled up the runner at second to get the Panthers out of the jam.
“Right before that happened I was thinking, ‘Oh come to me, I’m gonna lay out for this ball,’” Bowler said. “Sure enough it’s right to me after that, so I went all out after it.”
The double play seemed to re-energize the Panthers, who scored two runs in the bottom half of the frame and then added six more in the fifth.
“It really amped me up and I think the rest of the team just saw it as, ‘OK, we got this,’” Bowler said.
Osler was 3 for 4 with a double and an RBI, while Kenna Thomas finished 2 for 2 with a triple and three RBIs.
This year’s divisional was scheduled for Thursday and Friday, but was moved ahead two days to avoid predicted rain for the weekend.