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Two losses serve to refocus Lady Pirates before state

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Finishing the regular season 1-2 wasn’t the way Polson’s Lady Pirates wanted to head into this weekend’s state Class A softball tournament, but that’s a reality they’ve had to face. And, hopefully, they’ve learned enough from those losses to spur them into a final winning run when it counts the most.

Polson had already wrapped up the Northwestern A conference championship and a number one seed in the state tournament, which begins today (Thursday) in Billings. So, losing 3-0 in Ronan Tuesday and 5-4 in Libby on Friday after beating Columbia Falls 8-4 on Thursday didn’t change anything. Still it was telling of work to be done by a team that has lofty goals for the state tournament.

Ronan played a whale of a game on Tuesday in the Maidens’ final game of the season. Although Polson’s defense and pitcher Shay Duford held Ronan to six hits, the Lady Pirates committed three errors, which produced one Ronan run in the first and led to one of two more runs in the third. 

Polson’s offense managed just three hits against Ronan’s Bethany Colman.

“Colman had fantastic control but we were overly aggressive, going after bad pitches the whole game. That was their game plan and it worked very well for them,” Polson head coach Larry Smith said. “The (rainy) weather wasn’t an excuse ... We were trying too hard, I guess. We were swinging at a lot of balls. Colman struck out eight batters and our errors compounded that.”

But Smith didn’t want to take anything away from the Maidens, who played a great game.

“In my mind it was their game plan (that won it). I tip my hat off to their players and coaches. Their players executed and played a very, very clean defensive game against us,” Smith emphasized. “Their defense made some good plays on balls we hit. We weren’t hitting it very hard, whereas their hits were hard hits through the infield gaps.”

The Lady Pirates rebounded with an 8-4 win over Columbia Falls on Thursday’s Senior Night in Polson. 

Polson fell behind 2-1 before exploding with seven runs in the bottom of the fourth, then held on for the victory. The Lady Pirates put together 15 hits, led by Staci Benson at 2-for-4, Shay Duford at 2-for-3, Sallie Sams at 3-for-4, Kylie Knutson at 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles and two RBIs, and Ashley Johnson at 2-for-3 with two RBIs.

Polson had 12 batters in the fourth inning, including both of Knutson’s doubles. Pitcher Shay Duford earned nine strikeouts, but did give up four walks and a home run in the top of the fourth.

“Shay pitched a great game,” Smith said. He added that the walks could have been a reflection of how many pitches she’s been throwing. “I’m not sure, but I think she was getting a little fatigued. She’s been pitching a lot with three games last week.”

He was pleased to see the offense fire back up, though.

“It was nice to see the other hitters coming to life. Sallie Sams, Knutson and Johnson were hitting the ball very well. And I thought it was an exceptionally good night for Staci Benson in her last home game. It was probably very emotional on her, but she handled it well and played extremely well,” the coach said.

On Friday, the Lady Pirates headed up north to play their final regular season game at Libby, which is always a battle regardless of records. And this one, too, turned out to be a barnburner.

With the Lady Loggers battling to finish second in the conference to improve their seed at state, the game was tied 2-2 heading into the bottom of the fourth. That’s when Libby’s Lexie Hageness teed off on a Duford pitch on a 2-2 count with two outs, sending the ball deep over the centerfield fence to score three runs. 

The Lady Pirates were stunned, but none more than freshman pitcher Shay Duford, who put all the responsibility for the deficit on her shoulders. Coach Smith called a timeout and strode out to the mound, where his young ace was struggling to contain her disappointment. 

“She really broke down and needed some positive encouragement. Shay was trying to put it all on her own shoulders, but I told her she had some teammates that shared in the responsibility,” Smith said. 

But he knows Shay is a competitor that doesn’t tolerate excuses. 

“I had to keep coaching her on after that (in the dugout). I talked to her quite a while about mental toughness,” Smith said. “Everybody makes mistakes and the good pitchers let it go. She was hanging on to it much too long. But I have to keep reminding myself — and she hates to hear me say this — that she’s just a freshman. She hates that as an excuse. But she’s a young one who’s getting stronger and better. And she’s getting better at bat, too, hitting the ball hard.”

Shay finished with three strikeouts and six walks, with one struck batter, but she only gave up six hits. Polson’s defense also played well.

“I thought we played a good defensive game. Shay struggled and had a lot more walks than we should. But I think it was just our offensive effort that kind of let us down,” Smith said. 

Polson did put together 10 hits, but they weren’t all that solid and they weren’t all that timely.
To their credit, the Lady Pirates made a run in the top of the seventh. With one out, Benson, Kodi Woods and Kayla Duford put together three straight hits to set the table for riley Kenney to drop a fly ball into short right field and score Benson and Woods. That put Polson within one (4-5).
Next up, Shay Duford hit a long ball almost to the centerfield fence. But on the same play Kenney got caught between second and third, forcing Kayla Duford to make a run home, where she was tagged out for two outs. Then Sams hit a deep fly to center for the final out that ended the run.
“That three-run homer run was a game changer, with strike two on her. But not getting that key hit was the difference ... and some bad base running took us out of good innings twice. Just mental mistakes ... and they were by older kids,” Smith explained. 
But Smith said his team needs to get back to the basics of striking the ball well like they were in the early part of the season. 
“We’re putting the bat on the ball, but not hitting it solid. If someone had got a solid hit in that last inning, we’d have scored some runs. Instead, we were just scoring one at a time,” he said. 
Coach Smith said it was a long bus ride home from Libby Friday night, longer than usual as he mulled over the loss to Libby. 
“The kids get over it a lot faster and easier than the coach does,” Smith chuckled. “They got over it ... and that’s the way I want them to be. I want them to let it go. And right away their attention has turned to the state tournament.”
The state tournament will be held at Stewart Park in Billings May 27-29. Polson has a first-round bye and at 2 p.m. on Thursday the Lady Pirates will face the winner of Laurel-Lewistown. They are in the same half of the bracket as Billings Central, the top seed from the East, but Smith said it really doesn’t matter.
“It will be a doozy. We’ve got 12 teams that will all compete,” Smith said. “We usually see three or four dominant teams, but right now you can’t pick them ... there are a lot of well-balanced teams in the tournament.” 
The Lady Pirates haven’t wasted any time in preparing for state, either. On the way home from Libby, Shay Duford asked Smith to come down to the field on Saturday morning to work on her pitching. That practice session carried over to Sunday, as well. They were back-to-basics sessions, Smith said.
“Just working on control, getting back to where we were in the start of the season. Just trying to position the ball,” Smith explained. “I think she might have been trying to put too much into her pitches. We’ve got her back into more of a fluid, liquid motion.”
Having your pitcher ask for extra practice is encouraging to a coach, Smith noted. But he also has a lot of confidence in all his players rising to the occasion. 
“We’ve already talked about it being anybody’s game at state. We have just as good a chance as everybody else,” Smith said, who told his players they’ll need to focus on putting together their best effort over three intense days of softball. “Every pitch, every out is very, very important.”
Ronan 3, Polson 0
Shay Duford and Kayla Duford. Bethany Colman and Katie Andrews. W - Colman (5-12). L - S. Duford (14-4).
POLSON - Staci Benson 0-3, Kodi Woods 0-3, Kayla Duford 0-3, Riley Kenney 1-3, Shay Duford 0-2, Kylie Knutson 0-1, Sallie Sams 1-2, Makaliah Wilson 0-3, Heidi Rausch 0-2, Ashley Johnson 1-2.
RONAN - Lindsay Clairmont 2-4, Claire Frank 1-1, Katie Andrews 0-2, Bethany Colman 0-3, Payge Delaurenti 0-3, Brittani Clairmont 0-2, Chelsey Bourdon 1-3, Abby Luke 2-3, Makenzie Middleton 0-1.
RBIs - L. Clairmont.
Polson 8, Columbia Falls 4
C. Falls0002110–452
Morgan Rowe and Kathrin Jetty. Shay Duford and Kayla Duford. W - S. Duford (15-4). L - Rowe.
COLUMBIA FALLS - Jessica Owens 0-4, Madison Sandefer 1-3, Shaun Rowe 1-4, Michonne Cronquist 0-4, Ranae Nelson 0-2, Niki Birky 0-2, Cassidee Skiles 2-2, Kathrin Jetty 0-3, Morgan Rowe 1-3.
POLSON - Staci Benson 2-4, Kodi Woods 1-3, Kayla Duford 1-4, Riley Kenney 1-3, Shay Duford 2-3, Makaliah Wilson 1-2, Sallie Sams 3-4, Kylie Knutson 2-4, Ashley Johnson 2-3, Heidi Rausch 0-0.
2B - Knutson 2. HR - Skiles. RBIs - S. Rowe, Skiles 2, Jetty; Woods, S. Duford, Sams, Knutson 2, Johnson 2.
Libby 5, Polson 4
Shay Duford and Kayla Duford. Stacey Oedewaldt and Lexie Hageness. W - Oedewaldt. L - S. Duford (15-5).
POLSON - Staci Benson 2-4, Kodi Woods 3-4, Kayla Duford 2-4, Riley Kenney 0-3, Shay Duford 2-4, Sallie Sams 0-4, Kylie Knutson 1-2, Makaliah Wilson 0-3, Ashley Johnson 0-3, Tina Marquardt 0-1.
LIBBY - Jaime Gilden 1-4, Alyssa Walker 0-3, Lexie Hageness 2-2, Alysha Martin 1-3, Kim Tangen 0-1, Candace Hendrickson 1-2, LaRona Luscher 1-3, Emily Monroe 0-3, Stacey Oedewaldt 0-2.
2B - S. Duford; Martin, Hendrickson. HR - Hageness. RBIs - Kenney 2, S. Duford; Hageness 3, Martin, Hendrickson.

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