GREAT FALLS — What seemed impossible when the sun rose Friday morning turned probable as the day dwindled and the innings drug on. And then, roughly 12 hours later, the inconceivable happened.
Billings West won the State AA softball championship over upstart Missoula Big Sky in the most inane, bizarre fashion you could dream up -- on a dropped third strike.
“All I could do was scream,” said pitcher Jalen Creech, who battled harder than anyone to push the Bears over the top. “I was so filled with joy. I was speechless. I’ve seen a walk-off home run, but I’ve never seen a home run off of a strikeout. That’s awesome.”
Here’s how it unfolded: No. 9 hitter Kendyl Boltz, who had sat out much of this season with mononucleosis and feared never returning to the lineup, swung at and missed a Kendall Rauk offering for the third strike in the bottom of the seventh inning of a tie game. It should have been the second out.
But Big Sky catcher Jaime Schafer saw the ball kick to the backstop, and Boltz bolted for first base.
Schafer’s throw was then wide of first base and bounded into foul territory down the right field line, where it eluded Macey Newbary (more on her later) when it ricocheted off the parallel chain-link fence. Boltz then chugged to second base and rounded for third.
That’s where it turned downright unbelievable. The ensuing throw to third also missed its target, and that allowed Boltz to trot home with the winning run. Game over. West won, 3-2.
“I just thought, ‘Keep going,’” said Boltz, who was mobbed by her teammates at the plate. “This is the motto of our team: Don’t give up no matter how tough it is. Go your hardest and don’t give up on anything. And I think that’s what basically gave us this championship.”
That credo made for a fitting ending to what was the longest, most dramatic day of softball the players from West might ever be a part of. Faced with the prospect of having to win five elimination games in one day under the Montana High School Association’s experimental two-day tournament format, the Bears just kept chugging along until they were the last ones standing.
“I just told them this morning when we got up that we were going to be out here all day,” said coach Ed Kriskovich, whose title is the third of his 29-year career at West. “Suck it up and get after it. And they did exactly that.”
They began with an 8-0 victory over Helena Capital in the morning. Creech — who logged an astounding 31 innings on Friday — earned the shutout. West followed that with a 9-2 triumph over crosstown rival Billings Skyview to advance to the third-place game.
But that’s where it looked like the magic would run out. Trailing by two going into the top half of the seventh inning against Great Falls CMR, the Bears scored three times, benefitting from three costly errors and another fly ball that got lost in the sun. They finished the Rustlers off in the bottom of the seventh when right fielder Erin Watterud hung on to catch a fly ball despite colliding hard with center fielder Rachael Dillon.
Creech came on in relief of Ashley Davis a few innings earlier and got her third win of the day. That put West in the championship round against Big Sky.
The young Eagles, perhaps an unlikely championship contender, cruised through the tournament on the strength of sophomore pitcher Newbary. But the Bears found a way.
The first championship game was scoreless as Creech and Newbary matched each other strikeout for strikeout. West, though, managed to push two runs across in the top of the ninth when Taylor Ostwald doubled and scored on Davis’ RBI single, and when Davis came in on a single by Dillon that was mishandled in the outfield.
That set up the eventual theatrics in Game 2, which nobody could quite believe even amid the postgame celebration.
“I just think we played so hard that the good lord was looking at us and decided we needed to get a break,” Kriskovich said.
Newbary, who’d thrown every inning (dominantly) for Big Sky until she finally ran out of gas in the second title game, put together a performance for the books. The sophomore transfer from Frenchtown simply couldn’t go any further than the third inning and gave way to Kendall Rauk in the fourth.
Newbary finished her incredible two-day run with 69 strikeouts and just one walk.
“I’ve been doing this for 12, 14 years and I can’t remember a pitcher having a tournament quite like that,” said longtime Big Sky coach Dennis Staves, emotional in defeat. “We had to make a decision. Not only was she out of gas, but she was starting to hurt a little bit. But she would not tell me.”
It seemed far-fetched earlier, but it was Creech, who totaled 24 strikeouts combined in the two championship games, including 15 in the final contest, who outdueled everyone. Creech even survived taking a screaming line drive off her leg in the fourth inning of Game 2.
“I understand these other pitchers are good and they did very well,” Kriskovich said. “But I tell you what, this girl reached down one more level to pull it out. And I’m so proud of her.”
“I just went out there knowing that I was confident in myself, that I had that game and it was my game to pitch,” Creech said. “God, it feels so good. So good.”