Billings West's Taylen Braunbeck jumps to catch a ball as Great Falls CMR's Brooke Crabtree runs towards home plate during a playoff game at Will James fields on Wednesday. Crabtree was safe on the play.
BILLINGS – The Great Falls CMR softball team didn’t just embrace its underdog role. The Rustlers relished it.
CMR qualified for the Class AA state softball tournament with a 7-6, 3-1 playoff series sweep over Billings West on a hot Wednesday afternoon at the Will James Middle School fields.
At 6-12 overall, the Rustlers entered the best-of-3 series as the No. 5 seed against the fourth-seeded Golden Bears. West, too, had won all three regular-season meetings by a combined score of 43-19. But CMR held on to win the first game of the series and then won a pitcher’s duel, sending them to Helena next weekend.
“We had nothing to lose,” CMR coach Lindsey Gustafson said. “I asked these kids to buy in at the beginning that we’re just going to keep getting better. It doesn’t matter what our season looks like, but if we keep getting better it’ll pay off in the end. They bought in and that’s what they did today.”
Madison Moore pitched and won both games for the Rustlers. After a strong start in the first game, followed by a West charge, Moore was strong again in the second game. She allowed just four hits – only one after the second inning – and pitched around seven walks and two hit batters. She also struck out 10 in the second game and 22 for the day.
Moore, too, said she and her teammates welcomed their role in the series.
“Everyone always loves the underdog in a movie,” said Moore, a junior. “We definitely wanted to show that we could play with whoever we faced.”
It was a disappointing end to the season for the Bears (9-10), including coach Preston Sanders. A potentially tying rally in the first game was thwarted when he forgot to notify the home-plate umpire of a courtesy runner after McKinsey Matthews had walked to put runners on first and second with two out in the bottom of the seventh.
The Rustlers caught the error and brought it to the attention of the umpires. By rule, the courtesy runner was called out and the game was over.
In between games Sanders walked over to the West parent section and apologized, and he was still disconsolate after the playoff was over.
“I told everybody except the umpire,” he said. “That was on me. That’s all me. I apologized to the crowd, to the players. That’s the first time I ever did it, and that’s the worst time to ever do it.”
Teagan Taylor finished the day 4 for 8, including a home run, with three runs scored and two RBIs for CMR. Moore doubled and Megan Toplovich tripled in CMR runs in the first game.
Lauren Blaschak scored four of West’s runs in the opener – she also hit a double – and Madisen Dahlquist, in her final game for West as the team’s lone senior, went 2 for 3.
West pitcher Kinzee Koch went out-for-out with Moore and struck out 13 on the day. In the end, though, the Bears couldn’t capitalize when they needed to, and Moore stranded 12 West baserunners in the second game.
“I don’t want to take anything away from CMR,” Sanders said. “They came down here and they outplayed us.
“They say you learn life’s hardest lessons through adversity, and I hate to be on the losing end of that, but we’ll see if this makes us better.”