SIDNEY — It was sometime toward the end of the first day of the Class A state softball tournament when Frenchtown coach Eli Field was asked about his team’s four-year run as champions.
“We always feel,” he said, “like someone is at our heels.”
The Broncs were finally caught this weekend.
Belgrade claimed its first state softball championship, dethroning the Broncs 6-1 on Saturday at South Meadows Softball Complex. It concluded a dominating season for the Panthers, who finished 22-1, the lone loss coming to Class AA Helena Capital.
“I really don’t have words for it. I’ve wanted to see Belgrade get over the hump for so long,” first-year Belgrade coach Mike Neubauer said. “The program’s just never been able to hit that edge. It’s an unbelievable feeling to just get it done.”
Shania Neubauer threw five shutout innings, Erin Elgas retired the last six hitters and Presley Jacobson, in a rare start, went 3 for 3 and scored two runs for the Panthers.
“I remember when I was a freshman sitting on the bench coming to state thinking, ‘Oh, Frenchtown, they’re such a good team,’ “ Belgrade senior first baseman Kalista Pachl said. “And now these last four years, trying to chase them, it feels so good.”
It was probably fitting that Frenchtown (21-3) gave Belgrade its toughest test. But the newly crowned champions still outscored the best the classification had to offer 41-3 over the tournament’s three days. For the season, the Panthers had a 317-23 run differential.
“It’s really nice to finally do it,” senior Shania Neubauer said. “Last year we lost maybe the best class ever to come out of Belgrade, and so to come this year with only two or three starters back is pretty cool.”
Belgrade shut out Hamilton 14-0 in the Saturday morning unbeaten semifinal behind three home runs from Ty Atwood.
Frenchtown, a morning loser-out winner over Polson in the fourth-place game, then beat Hamilton 11-7 in the third-place game.
“We gave it our all,” said Hamilton coach Dave Kearns, who had to play the game without ace pitcher Sky Lopez, who took a line drive off the shin in the loss to Belgrade. “We gave it everything we had. There’s no quit in us.”
For Frenchtown, the championship loss marked the end of one run, but not another. The Broncs have won a state-tournament trophy — meaning third place or better — for the past 16 seasons. The first three were in the B-C ranks, the last 13 in Class A.
The championship game was still a close affair when the Broncs scored a run in the top of the sixth to pull within 3-1. But Belgrade responded with three runs of its own, and Elgas shut the door with a 1-2-3 seventh, starting the Panthers' celebration.
“Our kids conducted themselves like champions,” Field said. “Thirteen years in a row, the pressure those kids have, they handle it every single year. It’s amazing. No one wants to be the one (to end it) and every year our kids have responded. That’s kind of what we’re all about.”