MISSOULA — Former Frenchtown softball pitcher Ashley Jones always had her heart set on one thing more so than being an outstanding athlete.
“I always wanted to be a mom and have kids as long as I can remember,” Jones said recently from her home in Missoula. “More so than I dreamt about sports, I wanted to be a mom.”
That’s the life chapter Jones, formerly Ashley Block, has moved on to after wrapping up her high school career, which she capped 15 years ago with a historic pitching performance no one has been able to touch.
Her mark of throwing a complete-game shutout in every state tournament game, which she humbly says belongs to the team and not her alone, is safe for another year. The MHSA canceled spring sports — including this week's state softball tournaments — in late April because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jones wouldn’t be watching even if the teams played. She has a bit of a love-hate relationship with the game.
Now in her early 30s, she’s largely moved on from softball and fills her days as a full-time mom of three children, taking lessons from softball into her home. She has a 6-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter and 3-month-old son, so her hands are fuller than when she was working through the heart of a batting order; homeschooling could be on the horizon.
“Having three kids under 6, it’s always a little bit hectic,” Jones said. “It is the most rewarding but the hardest thing you’ll ever do. It really is. But it’s going good.”
Jones’ softball memories are geared toward the big-time moments. She got the final three wins at the State B tournament as a freshman in relief of Eileen Babon. After middling sophomore and junior seasons, she again came up big in the State A tournament as a senior.
The right-handed pitcher threw five consecutive complete-game shutouts in 2005, striking out 44 and giving up 27 hits in 35 innings. She did it without great speed or accuracy, adding a knuckle-change to her rise ball, curveball and straight pitches two weeks before state.
While her performance was historic, albeit buried by time, she doesn't fondly recall it as a major accomplishment.
“I don’t think of it as a really big deal. I never really have,” Jones said. “To me, it was just like, I don’t get it. It was that big of a deal for us to win state. It was really cool, and it was exciting. But I felt like, ‘What did it do?’ I don’t follow softball anymore. It’s like not the be-all, end-all.”
Jones’s performance did land her a late-in-the-game spot to pitch in college after going into that season thinking her playing days were over and aiming to just have fun in her final go-around.
The college experience didn’t go how she hoped. She didn’t play professionally. She doesn’t coach or give lessons. She’s embraced anonymity after being known as the girl in the pink cleats in high school.
“I don’t know how to be proud of something like that because here I am 15 years removed and nobody even knows my name, so what difference does it make?” Jones said. “I guess it feels like that was high school and now I’m grown up and I have kids, and this is what I do now. I don’t think to make a deal out of it. I do like to remember it.”
As Jones' career was winding down at Frenchtown, Eli Fields' was just beginning.
It was Fields' first season coaching softball at any level, and he had to learn the game on the fly after assisting with the Missoula Mavericks baseball team.
So while Jones doesn’t feel her performance made a lasting impact on her or that she got the recognition she deserved then, she has made quite the impact on Field. It was more direct, too, because it was the only year Field didn’t call pitches, leaving it to Jones and catcher Kellie Jones.
“In a lot of ways, she legitimized my coaching career,” Field said. “She propelled me into what I’m doing now because I was trying to figure this all out. I don’t think they would’ve trusted me at that point to call pitches. Those two were on the same page and had confidence and trust that they were just in a zone. It was remarkable.”
The Broncs slipped into state that year at 13-9, didn’t receive a bye and weren’t considered a major threat. It was their second season in Class A after winning five Class B titles under coach Mark McMurray.
They’d win that year, and Field would lead the Broncs to over 300 wins and six state championships. The softballs marking the milestone victories are signed by the team and displayed in his classroom, where he teaches math.
“Her performance, people were like, ‘OK, Frenchtown is still around,’ because the program had been perennially successful in Class B,” said Field, who got words of praise from long-time Polson coach Larry Smith. “It made me think, ‘Oh, I can do this, and this is probably something I’ll get to do again the following year.’ It really lent credibility to our capability.”
Jones’ historic outings 15 years ago haven’t been touched. Not by Morgan Ray, who moved on to the Big Ten at Ohio State. Not by Tristin Achenbach, who’s at Montana. And not even Lindsey (Graham) Gustafson, a four-time state champ (1997-2000) who went on to be an All-American at North Dakota State.
Achenbach is the only pitcher since Jones to come close. She gave up one run in four games as a senior — tossing four one-hitters and allowing one unearned run — and two runs in four games as a sophomore.
“These great pitchers that go to these big schools, maybe they didn’t have the right team behind them,” Jones said. “There were plenty of errors in those games, plenty of walks. One mess-up and it would have meant the girl on third scores. For whatever reason, we didn’t mess up that week or that day. We just all played at our full potential.”
That included Jones at the plate. She led the team with a .529 batting average at state and drove in both runs in the championship game, a 2-0 win in a tournament in which they managed just 14 runs in five games. Still, she’s hard on herself.
“I didn’t do as good as I could have,” Jones said. “That’s my personality. I never will have done as good as I should have in my mind. Maybe that’s why I don’t think of it as a huge deal. I feel I lucked out a little bit because of the girls playing behind me and how awesome they all did.”
There have been some changes in the game since then that could’ve factored into her feat not being repeated. The pitching circle was moved from 40 to 43 feet to match the college game in hopes of improving offensive numbers. Batters have an extra split second to react, but pitchers have the opportunity to get more movement on the ball.
Bat technology has improved, too, going from aluminum to carbon fiber. It produces a trampoline effect that sends the ball soaring. Then there’s the increase in hitting and pitching camps or individual instructors, and improvements in stats-based and situational coaching.
Field isn’t expecting to see Jones’ accomplishment replicated, but he won’t rule it out.
“I just see that combination of better bat technology and better coaches now,” he said. “If somebody does it, they’re definitely going to have earned it and they’re probably playing at the next level for sure. I think it’s one of those things that to say ‘never,’ somebody probably will do it some time, but it’s not going to be common. It’s not something you should expect.”
Jones’ biggest takeaway from sports: passing along to her children the importance of learning to work with other people. It was required for success at Frenchtown, playing alongside catchers Traci Gibbs and Kellie Jones and others such as Whitney Dillworth, Katie Engwall and Emilee Sherry.
“I would say I am who I am because of sports, and I know that sounds epic,” Jones said. “You learn so much from having to work with other people. I think that was the biggest challenge as an immature teenager. You want to be recognized and be the center of attention, but it is a team sport. That’s what I love and hate about team sports. It’s hard to work toward a goal with a lot of people, but it’s so rewarding when you can all work together and do it successfully.”
Jones never found the balance of quality coaches and teammates she had at Frenchtown in her two years at Porterville Community College in California and one year at Tennessee State. That colored her perception of her high school accomplishments but also helped clarify the importance of teamwork.
“That was maybe part of the reason why I don’t feel like my five shutouts at state in high school were a big deal because then I go to college and it’s like, ‘Oh, if you don’t have a team behind you, you can’t carry the team, whoever you are,’” she said.
She also learned about the importance of doing what she wanted, like focusing on her art degree. She didn’t quit softball until she was out of town because she didn’t want to let down her parents, especially her dad, who coached her early and taught her to pitch.
Jones never felt her parents pushed her into softball or to continue it, but she thought she would see herself as a failure if she quit. She started at 9 years old and enjoyed volleyball more but focused on softball because she was naturally better at it.
“My experience with softball has taught me to be able to hopefully see when my kids are doing something for me instead of for them,” Jones said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to see that if it’s something that I’m pushing them to do instead of something that they’re wanting to do.
“I see the value in sports, and I’ll definitely let my kids try for what they want to do and encourage them to at least do it in some capacity, even just to learn a few lessons, just to have fun and to get to learn how to work with other people, which really applies to everything.”
No matter what her kids choose to focus on, she’ll encourage them to do their best and push themselves. She said she always preferred to do things that came easy and wanted to be good at softball without practicing, possibly playing into why she never earned all-state honors, which still bugs her.
“If I could do it over again, I would have put in the effort,” Jones said. “It’s not to say I didn’t put in effort, but I didn’t take it as seriously as I probably should have if I wanted to continue.”
Fun but bittersweet
Jones hasn’t been involved with softball much since leaving Tennessee State in 2008. She returned to Montana to finish her degree, played some intramural volleyball and started her family soon after graduating.
She still keeps softball memorabilia such as her home run balls, T-shirts from her playing days, and a scrapbook full of photos and newspaper clippings an aunt made her, but they are all stored in a box. One day she plans to cut out the logos from the T-shirts and make a quilt.
Her kids ask her for stories about her softball days, but she’s not sure how much they understand it yet. That will come in time. They do play catch in the backyard, a topic that brought excitement to her voice.
Jones finally took to the softball field again last year, playing with her husband on a slow-pitch team. She’s considered joining a fast-pitch league and getting back into pitching, but now her kids are her priority.
Maybe one day this chapter of motherhood will include a subsection on softball that rekindles some love for the game and what she accomplished.
“I never wanted to play again because I was like, ‘Why I would I do that?’ Once you play real softball, it’s kind of like, ‘What are we doing this for again?’ It’s kind of boring,” Jones said.
“But now that I’m not in the best shape of my life and not conditioned for competitive softball by any means, it was something I could do that was a little bit challenging. But it was easy at the same time because it’s my old glove and it fits the same. I put it on and it’s comfortable. That was fun actually. A little bit bittersweet also.”