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Lady Pirates shrug off weather, battle through shortened tournament for fifth state softball crown

The Polson Lady Pirates softball team went over to Billings a young, talented squad that was dominant most of the season, but looked out of sync in losing two out of its three final regular season games. However, they came back champions, proving themselves on the state’s biggest, most grueling softball stage. 

The Lady Pirates wore warm-up shirts specially made for the trip. Emblazoned on the back was one word, “Solidity,” a noun defined as the quality or state of being solid. That also aptly describes the attitude the Lady Pirates took into the state tournament — they were going to win or lose as a team, just the way they’d won their conference title. 

That team approach was never more evident than in the Saturday evening championship game between Polson and Belgrade. The bottom half of the batting lineup picked up for where the top half struggled, and the Polson defense was solid in spite of miserable conditions to anchor a 6-3 championship victory, the school’s fifth title in 10 years. 

“It wasn’t so much that I was concerned about our youth, but I wondered how they would handle the pressure,” Polson head coach Larry Smith said of his team. “There’s no pressure in ASA (summer league) like high school ball. I just learned so much from them and what they are capable of doing ... so I had a good feeling that they would have a successful season if they could keep things going. 

“We started out great guns, but we had a few slips going into the tournament. So we made a few adjustments, both mentally and physically. And the team came through. Maybe the top hitters weren’t doing well, but those who followed them picked it up. It really is a team sport. Everyone has to participate.”

It wasn’t like it was an easy road by any stretch of the imagination. But the path that Polson’s Lady Pirates took at the state Class A softball tournament turned out to be the shortest and the least grueling of the tournament.

It wasn’t that the competition wasn’t formidable, because it certainly was. But the shortest path — not losing any games and not having to come back through extra games in the consolation bracket — was even more important this year after officials shortened the tournament down to two days. Montana High School Association officials cut all the state softball tournaments down to two days on the eve of the tournament due to a high probability of rainy, windy weather on Saturday. 

It was a forecast that didn’t materialize — temperatures were in the coolish 50s, but largely dry on Saturday in Billings. But MHSA officials apparently didn’t want to take the chance, forcing teams in loser-out play to battle through up to five games to earn a spot in the championship.

After winning its first game on Thursday 11-1 over Laurel, Polson won a marathon 9 a.m. game 9-7 in 10 innings over Billings Central to start off Saturday. The Lady Pirates then beat Belgrade 5-1 in the 3 p.m. semifinal game to earn a spot in the 7 p.m. championship. 

It was supposed to start at 7 anyway — actually it didn’t start until after 8:30 p.m., ending at about 10:20 p.m. with Polson beating Belgrade again 6-3 in a steady drizzle.

It may have been miserable weather-wise, but the rain didn’t dampen the Lady Pirates’ spirit or sense of accomplishment. 

On Thursday, Polson had a bye in the first round but showed it was ready to get after it in the second round. After a couple of innings of timing out Laurel’s pitcher, Polson came out like gangbusters in a five-run third inning, then banged out six more runs in the fourth to cruise to an 11-1 win, shortened to five innings due to the mercy rule.

The third inning run was started off by Polson’s hot bat of the tournament, Makaliah Wilson who singled. Wilson went 7-for-13 at the plate over the tournament for the Lady Pirates, knocking in three runs.

“She batted really well for us this tournament,” coach Smith said of his sophomore first-baseman. “All my sophomores and freshmen shined in this tournament.”

Kodi Woods followed with a single that loaded the bases, then Kayla Duford hit a two-RBI single to put Polson up 2-0. Then Riley Kenney hit a one-RBI single and Shay Duford knocked both her sister and Kenney in with another single for two more runs that put Polson up 5-0.

Ashley Johnson, the ninth batter, started the fourth-inning rally with a single. Staci Benson followed with a single and Woods’ sacrifice grounder moved the pair to second and third. Kayla Duford loaded the bases after being struck by a pitch, then Riley Duford got on with a ground-ball error to pick up an RBI. Then Sallie Sams slammed a two-RBI single, followed by Wilson knocking in another run with a single to put Polson up 11-0.

“All you’ve got to do is get two hits in a row and it seems like everybody just takes off,” Smith said. 

Eight of the nine Polson batters got at least one hit. Shay Duford, Wilson and Johnson all got two hits, with Shay earning four RBIs and Kenney, Sams and Kayla Duford all knocking in two apiece.

Shay Duford earned the win on the mound, with one strikeout and no walks. That made sense after she and coach Smith spent the weekend getting back to controlling pitch placement rather than trying to blow away batters with fastballs. 

“She had very good control, spotting the ball where we wanted to and getting them to hit into our defense so we could shut them down,” Smith explained. 
 
The victory set up a 9 a.m. game on Friday between Polson and Billings Central, a quarterfinal game that kept everyone on the edge of their seats through 10 innings despite wet, windy and cold weather. Polson survived the battle, knocking in three runs in the top of the 10th inning and holding off Billings Central to take the 9-7 win.
 
Shay Duford drilled a solo homer over the left field fence in the second inning to put Polson up 2-0.  But Billings Central rebounded with four runs over their next two at-bats to take a 4-2 lead.
 
But the Lady Pirates put up three runs in the top of the fourth inning to regain a 5-4 edge. That lead held up until Billings Central scored a run in the bottom of the seventh, tying the game at 5-5 and forcing extra innings. 
 
In the eighth, both teams scored a run apiece and the ninth was scoreless. Then Polson went on a three-run tear in the top of the tenth to go up 9-6.
 
Wilson lined out to start the inning, but Johnson followed with a single and Benson banged out a double — Johnson had her motor in high gear, scoring all the way from first base. 
Woods drew a walk, then stole second before Kayla Duford laid down a beautiful bunt. Benson read the bunt and scored from third after the ball was thrown to first to get Kayla out. But the defense didn’t react quick enough to stop Woods from scoring.
 
“When she rounded third she had both her jets on ... and beat out the throw back home,” coach Smith said. “There’s nothing like speed.” 
 
That gave Kayla a rare two-RBI sacrifice bunt and Polson held a 9-6 lead heading into the bottom of the 10th inning. But, Billings Central wasn’t finished, singling in a runner with one out, making it 9-7.
 
Then Polson’s defense closed the door on Billings Central when Woods made a full-speed catch in centerfield for the second out and Benson snared a grounder and chucked the ball to first for the final out.
 
Shay Duford earned the victory on the mound with four strikeouts and only one walk.
 
“She did very well,” Smith noted. “And Kayla did such a tremendous job behind the plate for us. Her mechanics are so good and she is very quick. I had two different coaches comment to me about her.”
 
Next up was a 3 p.m. semifinal contest between Polson and Belgrade, a team that had beaten the Lady Pirates earlier in the month at the Butte Invitational. But, this time around, Polson’s defense got the job done, holding Belgrade to six hits and just one run, while Polson put up five runs in the third inning to earn the 5-1 win.
 
Shay Duford earned two strikeouts and didn’t give up a single walk over the seven innings. 
 
The five-run tear started with Benson nailing a lead-off double. Woods moved her to third with a single, then stole second base. That set up a two-RBI single by Kayla Duford, putting Polson up 2-0.
 
Kenney followed that with a double and Wilson scored Duford with a single. Then Sams hit a long-ball shot over the centerfield fence for two more RBIs and a 5-0 lead for Polson.
 
Belgrade’s Alison Cygan hit a solo dinger in the fourth, but Polson’s defense secured the 5-1 win over the final three innings, putting the Lady Pirates into the championship game. Belgrade bounced back in the consolation bracket to earn the other spot after throttling Frenchtown 11-1. 
 
The championship started late, at around 8:30 p.m. The evening light was fading, so the field was lit by stadium lights, highlighting the constant drizzle of rain. By the third inning a heavy shower blew in and coach Smith thought for sure the game would be called. But, just when it looked its worst, the rain lightened back to a drizzle and the game continued.
 
But field conditions were still a mess, challenging both teams to adjust. 
 
“It was exceptionally muddy, with that gooey clay that attached itself to your feet quite heavily. Some of the girls talked about it being slippery here and there, and it probably helped us get out a couple of times,” Smith said. “But it was the same mud our opponent had to run in, too. I don’t think it slowed our attitudes down and or our aggressive play.”
 
Polson opened up a 2-0 lead in the second inning. Wilson was first to get on base after being struck by a pitch. Then Sams knocked her in with a double and scored herself on a fielder’s choice hit by Johnson.
 
Polson scored three more runs in the top of the fourth to go up 5-0. Wilson started it off for Polson again with one out, getting on base with a single. Sams drew a walk the Knutson loaded the bases with another single. That set the table for a two-RBI single by Johnson, followed by a ground-out sacrifice RBI by Benson.
 
Polson added another fun in the fifth to go up 6-0 when Knutson hit a single to score Wilson. 
 
But in the bottom of the fifth, Belgrade charged back with two runs to close the game to three (6-3) before Polson’s defense closed out the inning. Belgrade got one more run in the bottom of the seventh, but the Lady Pirates’ defense stepped up again to end the run and earn the 6-3 championship win.
 
Shay Duford pitched two strikeouts and only walked one batter to earn the win, her 19th of the season. 
 
“They only struck us out twice and we only walked once ... it was an evenly played game,” Smith said. “We just played tremendous defense against them ... a very clean one with no errors.”
 
Polson’s bats got hot when it was needed, spreading out enough hits throughout the lineup to produce six runs. 
 
Woods hit 2-for-3, as did Johnson and Wilson. Knutson also hit 3-for-3 at the number eight spot.
 
“Once again, the six, seven, eight and nine hitters really came through. That’s kind of indicative of our other state champion teams, too,” coach Smith noted. “No matter where you are at in the batting order, we have a lot of speed when they get on base. Our runners want you to make a mistake and throw the ball down ... constantly putting pressure on you. “
 
It was Polson’s first championship since 2007, when Benson was a freshman, and the team’s fifth in 10 years. The Lady Pirates might be well on their way to becoming a softball dynasty in the state. Certainly, they expect to win and not just in the regular season.
 
“That’s the expectation our players have. They don’t expect to just win the conference. They expect to bring gold home from state. That kind of attitude just keeps our program going,” Smith noted. 
 
Every team Smith has coached has been different and this one was an interesting mix of speed and hitting ability, plus youth. They may have been largely unproven, but their coach didn’t have any doubt in their ability.
 
“It wasn’t so much that I was concerned about our youth, but I wondered how they would handle the pressure (of the state tournament),” Smith explained. “There’s no pressure in ASA (summer league) like high school ball. But during the summer I just learned so much from them and what they are capable of doing ... I had a good feeling that they would have a successful season if they could keep things going.”
 
The Lady Pirates started off the season strong, but “had a few slips” down the stretch, according to Smith. 
 
“So we made a few adjustments, both mentally and physically. Maybe the top hitters weren’t doing as well as they wanted, but those who followed them picked it up. It just proves that it really is a team sport. Everyone has to participate,” Smith said. “It showed their solidity, their motto for the tournament. It showed how well they appreciated one another and had fun.”
 
And Smith credited the team captain, Benson, with bringing all that solidity together.
 
“It was a fantastic end for Staci’s career. This year she made everyone fit in,” Smith said. “She was a model leader. She didn’t talk a lot, but she led by example and it rubbed off on everybody else. And the freshmen and sophomores wanted to win as bad as the juniors and seniors ... and it all really came together.”
 
Smith said that when his team struggled over the final week of the regular season he emphasized getting back to the attitude of improving every game, every inning, every play.
 
“We needed to focus on improvement ... I thought we hit a status quo (at the end of the season) and watched other teams improve. But in the state tournament we just got better and better with each game,” Smith said. “And when we went into the championship game you could tell they were going to finish it right then and there. I was just very pleased with them, pleased with the improvement throughout the tournament. That’s what I wanted from them.”
 
And how fitting it was for it to be drizzling rain on Memorial Day. The Lady Pirates rode through a damp parade atop a fire truck to celebrate their softball championship, won in the muck and the mud of a weather-shortened two-day tournament that they won’t soon forget.
 
Summary
Class A State Softball Tournament
Billings
May 27-28, 2010
 
Thursday
Polson 11, Laurel 1
Laurel 000 01–1 5 1
Polson 005 6x–11 11 1
Sara Parks and Jesse Engen. Shay Duford and Kayla Duford. W - S. Duford (16-5). L - Parks.
LAUREL - Olivia Heidinger 0-3, Kelcie Wood 0-3, Maddie Cebuhar 0-2, Sara Parks 1-2, Keilah Ahmann 1-2, Jesse Engen 0-2, Haylee Gallegos 1-2, Katie Witschen 0-2, Tara Russell 2-2.
POLSON - Staci Benson 1-3, Kodi Woods 1-2, Kayla Duford 1-2, Riley Kenney 1-2, Shay Duford 2-2, Heidi Rausch 0-3, Sallie Sams 1-3, Makaliah Wilson 2-3, Ashley Johnson 2-3. 
2B - Russell. RBIs - Russell; K. Duford 2, Kenney 2, S. Duford 4, Sams 2, Wilson.
 
Friday
Quarterfinals
Polson 9, Billings Central 7
Polson 110 300 010 3–9 12 2
Billings C. 022 0001 101–7 12 2
Shay Duford and Kayla Duford. Ashley Corcoran and Brynn Burke. W - S. Duford (17-5). L - Corcoran.
POLSON - Staci Benson 3-5, Kodi Woods 1-5, Kayla Duford 1-4, Riley Kenney 1-5, Shay Duford 3-5, Kylie Knutson 0-5, Sallie Sams 0-3, Makaliah Wilson 2-4, Ashley Johnson 2-5. 
BILLINGS CENTRAL - Austin Hanser 0-5, Alexa Rockwell 0-5, Brynn Burke 2-5, Ashley Corcoran 3-5, Michela Jacobson 1-5, Katelynn Lynch 1-5, Ashley MacDonald 2-4, Chere Anderson 2-5, Amanda Tryan 1-5. 
2B - K. Duford; Burke, Lynch, MacDonald. HR - S. Duford. RBIs - Benson 3, Woods 2, K. Duford 2, S. Duford, Wilson; Burke, Corcoran 2, MacDonald, Anderson 2. 
 
Semifinals
Polson 5, Belgrade 1
Belgrade 000 100 0– 16 0
Polson 005 000 x–5 6 2
Loren Torres and Melissa Bell. Shay Duford and Kayla Duford. W - S. Duford (18-5). L - Torres.
BELGRADE - Justine Taylor 0-4, Kasey West 1-3, Alison Cygan 1-3, Bell 1-3, Kassie Kallestad 1-3, Loren Torres 0-3, Alissa Dorvall 0-3, Nicole DeHaan 2-3, Tara Lanzendorf 1-3.
POLSON - Staci Benson 1-3, Kodi Woods 1-3, Kayla Duford 1-2, Riley Kenney 1-2, Shay Duford 0-2, Makaliah Wilson 1-3, Sallie Sams 1-2, Heidi Rausch 0-3, Ashley Johnson 0-2, Kylie Knutson 0-1, Ashley Johnson 0-2.
2B - Benson, Kenney. HR - Cygan; Sams. RBIs - Cygan; K. Duford 2, Wilson, Sams 2.
 
Championship
Polson 6, Belgrade 3
Polson 020 310 0–6 12 0
Belgrade 000 020 1– 39 1
Shay Duford and Kayla Duford. Alison Cygan and Melissa Bell. W - S. Duford (19-5). L - Cygan.
POLSON - Staci Benson 0-3, Kodi Woods 2-3, Kayla Duford 0-3, Riley Kenney 1-4, Shay Duford 1-4, Makaliah Wilson 2-3, Sallie Sams 1-3, Kylie Knutson 3-3, Ashley Johnson 2-3.
BELGRADE - Justine Taylor 0-4, Bell 1-3, Alison Cygan 1-4, Kasey West 1-4, Kassie Kallestad 1-4, Annie Prickett 2-3, Alissa Dorvall 1-3, Nicole DeHaan 0-1, Tara Lanzendorf 2-2. 
2B - Sams; Prickett 2. RBIs - Benson, Sams, Knutson, Johnson 2; West 2, Kallestad.

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