SIDNEY — Rachel Richardson was the fire-starter. She knew it, too, as she rounded the bases in the bottom of the fourth inning Friday afternoon.

“I knew right when I hit it that it was changing the game,” said Richardson, one of two seniors on the Hamilton Broncs softball roster. “I mean, all the girls needed a lift, and I think that gave it to them.”

Richardson’s home run, which came with her team trailing four-time Class A champion Frenchtown by four runs in a third-round game at the Class A state softball tournament, started what turned out to be seven unanswered runs over the next three innings and a 7-4 win.

The win put Hamilton into Saturday’s 9 a.m. unbeaten semifinal against Belgrade, a 10-1 winner over Columbia Falls in the tournament’s other third-round game.

A home run might have gotten Hamilton started on the winning path, but for Belgrade, it was the other extreme. Yes, Olivia Cook hit her team-leading sixth home run, a grand slam, as part of a six-run third inning breaking a scoreless tie with Columbia Falls.

But two back-to-back squeeze plays, netting the rally’s first two runs, got the Panthers going. Shania Neubauer had the first successful bunt and Ty Atwood followed with the other.

“I was just hoping to get some base runners where we had the short-game situation because I wanted to help get something going,” Belgrade coach Mike Neubauer said. “We’ve come a long way here in the last month or so as far as being able to lay down a bunt and squeeze people in. So I’m really confident about that.”

So was Atwood, who wasn’t taken by surprise by her coach’s decision to squeeze two times in a row, even if the Panthers had hit 33 home runs entering the tournament.

The Panthers were expecting to be in the unbeaten semifinal last season at state. But they lost before they could get there and wound up third. While they’ve taken that extra step this season, they aren’t looking beyond that.

“We have to have the mental status of one pitch at a time,” Atwood said as Hamilton was trying to hold off Frenchtown on the other field. “We can’t be looking too far ahead, because then we lose our focus.”

Hamilton and coach Dave Kearns were content to focus on the moment at hand. Kearns, in his first season as Hamilton’s head coach after several years as an assistant, still had watery eyes after a lengthy talk with his team after its win over Frenchtown.

“I’ve been preaching all year that they can compete with (Frenchtown),” Kearns said. “You can see I’m pretty emotional about it. Today, we could actually see them come together and want it for each other. That was a big opportunity for us.”

The winner of Belgrade (20-1) and Hamilton (16-4) will advance to the championship round and will have to be defeated twice. The loser needs to win a third-place game to advance. After handing Frenchtown (19-2) its second loss of the season, is Hamilton ready to do it again against one-loss Belgrade?

“I think it’s going to be a good game,” Kearns said.” You know, they’ve been here, and we’ve been here, too. We just have to show up and play. Both teams are going to play hard tomorrow and that’s what it’s all about.”

Said Belgrade’s Mike Neubauer: “We came here to win it. We didn’t come here to take second or third place. If we end up second or third place so be it. But that’s not our goal by any means.”

Frenchtown is still in the running for its fifth straight title. The Broncs, on the strength of six home runs, upended Lewistown 8-1 in Friday’s final game. Polson completed the final four with a Haley Fyant’s 2-0 shutout win over Columbia Falls. Earlier Friday, Columbia Falls beat Miles City 11-4 in the completion of Thursday’s suspended game. In loser-out games, Havre beat Stevensville 14-13 in eight innings; Polson topped Sidney 15-1; Miles City edged Glendive 8-2; and Lewistown beat Butte Central 9-4

Along with the undefeated semifinal, Frenchtown and Polson play at 9 a.m. Saturday, with the loser taking fourth place. The third-place game is set for 11 a.m., and the championship games are scheduled for 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. (if necessary).

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Billings Mustangs, High School Sports Reporter

Sports writer for The Billings Gazette, covering high school sports and the Billings Mustangs.