Two losses serve to refocus Lady Pirates before state
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.