POLSON — Mossy Kauley may have had the most challenging past year of anyone on the Polson softball team.
The senior lost every basketball game during the winter – for the third year in a row. That’s right, three seasons on varsity and a grand total of zero wins.
At least she had softball, where the Pirates have been a Class A juggernaut and were a state title favorite in 2020. But that season got pulled out from underneath them by the pandemic.
Then her father lost his job, which was on top of her mother not working so she could take care of Kauley’s older brother who has cerebral palsy and grandmother dealing with Alzheimer’s, she said.
On top of all that, her grandmother, who used to take her to softball camps at the University of Oklahoma in their mutual home state, died in October.
“That was pretty heartbreaking because it was the day after my birthday,” she said.
Yet, she’s still standing and is the starting first baseman for Polson, which is a state title favorite heading into the State A softball tournament Thursday in Butte.
“I think I handled it all well,” she said. “It’s something that made me stronger, so I know that I’m a strong person and a better person because of it now.”
Not every player on Polson experienced such drastic downturns this past year. For senior Josie Caye, the biggest detriment was her college recruiting taking a hit when her ever-important junior season was canceled. Her summer and fall seasons with her travel team, the Northwest Bullets in Oregon, were later reduced. And the NCAA restricted in-person recruiting.
Caye already has college paid for with non-athletic scholarships but is still hoping for a chance to play Division I softball. She's been a varsity starter since her freshman year and got ranked by longtime D-I softball coach Jim Beitia on his list for class of 2021 top prospects in the country as a sophomore.
Caye will get another shot in club ball this summer, but her focus now is winning state after missing out on last season.
“That was frustrating, but it made us more hungry this year and more dedicated,” she said. “We have to take this seriously because it’s our last year. We want it really bad.”
The Pirates have been there to support each other through their struggles this past year. They’ve also used the time to bond over their desire to win the state championship they feel they were denied last spring.
For Kauley, it’s her lone chance to win a state title in softball in her only varsity season after spending the first two years on JV and having her first varsity season last year canceled. Caye and fellow seniors Lexy Orien, Kobbey Smith and SaVanna Carpentier all played as sophomores on the 2019 team that was the state runner-up in coach Jami Hanson’s first season.
“They’re great leaders, not just on the field but off,” he said. “They’re true leaders because they’re very compassionate, not only for the game but for their teammates.”
The seniors didn’t let their desire to win state fade during the past year. They talked about it a lot, especially when they got together for team dinners or to do homework because they missed the in-person interaction as they took classes online.
The players still do team runs on Saturday through the town of 5,000 people on the Flathead Reservation. They then race alongside Flathead Lake, over to the old softball fields and back to the softball complex.
“We’re always helping each other in tough situations, so we’ve really come together with that, and that’s brought us together as a team,” Smith said. “I think that really kept the bond for us, and I think that’s why this season is going so well.”
Some of the players, like Orien and Smith, are best friends. Others are good friends.
Some get along in a unique way that they can joke with each other. Caye, who intends to go to law school because of her debating skills, can mix it up with junior pitcher Katelyne Druyvestein as they razz each other about pitches, fielding or at-bats.
“I really like our attitude,” Orien said. “We stay positive, even if we’re in a close game. We can stay pretty upbeat, and that keeps us going.”
Aside from having their chances at state ripped away last year, they also lost out on a potential summer championship. The Lady Pirates club team that features Polson’s players and serves as a high school feeder system played its summer season, only to find out that the state tournament was being shut down one day before it was scheduled to begin.
The Pirates head into this state tournament with a 19-1-1 record and the Northwest A conference title. They’re undefeated against Class A competition, including a win over Southwest A champion Frenchtown.
“It’s been a very memorable year because we’re having a really good time and have smiles on our faces,” Carpentier said. “The state title would bring immense happy tears. I’d be so happy. That’s like a dream.”
Hanson and all five seniors said without hesitation that winning state would make for a happy end to the season. It would be the program’s first title since 2012 and eighth overall.
Kauley was the lone one who qualified the expectation with an exception, which may not be surprising given everything she’s been through in the past year.
“Even if we don’t win,” she began, “we know we’ve worked our hardest, we know we’re a good team, which is something that already makes me proud.”
Sentinel will be seeking its first-ever state championship when it plays in the State AA tournament Thursday through Saturday in Kalispell.
The Spartans earned the Western AA No. 1 seed in the eight-team tournament after they pulled off a 13-3 upset of Kalispell Glacier in the divisional title game last week. It was the first divisional tournament for Sentinel under coach Dustin Delridge after the 2019 one was rained out and the 2020 one was canceled by the pandemic.
“It was fun to see the team come together in a more stressful environment,” he said. “That’s almost like a mini state tournament, so we were all glad we did well.”
The Spartans went 3-1 in the regular season against Eastern AA teams who qualified for state. They had a 3-2 loss in 10 innings to Eastern AA No. 1 seed Billings West and beat Billings Senior, 5-0 and 16-5, and Great Falls High, 12-1.
Sentinel opens against Great Falls, the Eastern AA No. 4 seed, at 2 p.m. Thursday. Delridge isn’t paying much attention to those seedings.
“It’s going to be super competitive,” he said. “I don’t see anyone as a 1 (seed) or a 4 (seed) from either side of the state. I think any one of them could win it.”
Sentinel is led by Montana Grizzlies signee Grace Hardy, a senior shortstop and pitcher. She played on the 2018 state runner-up team as a freshman; it was Sentinel’s second appearance in the title game, with the other one being a runner-up finish in 2003. She then missed the 2019 tournament because of a broken thumb and had the 2020 season canceled.
Hardy is joined by four other seniors who look to go out on top: center fielder Mac Wright, second baseman Keena Kay, first baseman Morgan Holmes and right fielder Addy Gaub. Wright will be playing softball at Utah State University Eastern, while Kay will play at Columbia Basin.
The team is finally fully healthy, particularly the pitching staff of Hardy and Charlee Hoover, and the approach is simple for Delridge.
“Just staying calm and true to who we are,” he said. “When we hit a bump in the road, we have to work it out and encourage each other. We’re going to go in with 100% attitude and effort, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Florence will have a chance to win a state championship on its home field when it hosts the State B/C tournament Thursday through Saturday.
The Falcons, the Western B/C No. 1 seed, will open against Shepherd, the Eastern B/C No. 4 seed, at 2 p.m. Thursday in the eight-team tournament. They had won the Western B/C divisional crown this past weekend when they hosted the event on the same field.
Florence beat runner-up Mission-Arlee-Charlo twice in the divisional tournament, 5-4 and 9-8. The Falcons won their other games 15-0 and 10-0. They own a 3-1 edge over MAC this season in what is projected by some to be the state title game matchup.
Florence is led by first-year coach Maurice Craun, who took over following the retirement of Rob Ralls after the 2019 season. Ralls led the Falcons to three state titles in his six seasons. They’ve won 10 of the 20 State B/C titles going back to when they captured their first in 2000.