Maranda Ratcliff considers herself the adventurous sort.
She backpacks and hikes. She fishes and hunts, both with a bow and rifle. And she wants to pilot Navy jet fighters.
“In about seventh grade I was talking to a science teacher and he noticed that I was strong in math and science,” said the senior catcher for the Billings West softball team. “He suggested I consider the Air Force or Navy, and ever since, that’s kind of been my dream.”
Having been accepted to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Ratcliff will begin chasing that dream soon enough. Another one lies in the more immediate future when the State AA and State B/C softball tournaments get underway Thursday in Great Falls. The State A tournament is in Polson.
West’s road to playing for a championship hit a bump during last week’s playoffs, however, when first baseman Makenzie Shellnutt suffered a high ankle sprain and pitcher Megan Dahlquist suffered a hairline fracture in her pitching hand. Shellnutt has been cleared to play, though whether she will is still up in the air; Dahlquist, on the other hand, is out.
“We’ve got some other kids who can pick up the slack if we have to,” West coach Ed Kriskovich said.
One of those, of course, will be pitcher Jalen Creech (12-3, 2.68 ERA) who will likely be asked to log as many innings as she can.
Another would be Ratcliff. Though her batting average is a low – for her, anyway -- at .300, Ratcliff still leads the team in RBIs (20) and is tied for the team lead in homers (5, along with Lexi Mayhood). Her always-positive outlook will come in handy for a team that despite hitting .402, could use some levity with the recent injury news. And if there’s a player who can help a team through tough times, it’s probably Ratcliff.
“She works hard,” said Kriskovich, himself a former member of the armed services. “Out on the field, and in the class, too. Academics to her is first, she’s a valedictorian, too. That’s more important, really, than what she’s doing (on the field). Not to make softball a simple task, but she’s going to go on to something better, and I hope it works out for her. She could make a good leader.”
And there’s no better time to show it than this weekend.
Falcons’ familiar foe
Skyview coach Sarah DeVore thinks her team’s bats came alive at the right time. Bekah Ellis, Allysa Baxter and Kris Rickhoff each homered in a two-game sweep of Butte in the playoffs as Skyview earned the fourth seed from the East.
That set the Falcons up with a first-round meeting against Missoula Hellgate, the West’s top seed, in the tournament’s first round. But DeVore said there is some comfort in the matchup; Skyview beat Hellgate 10-2 in the teams’ only meeting, though that was nearly two months ago.
“Knowing that we’ve seen them relaxes the girls a little bit,” DeVore said. “The key is keeping (Hellgate) off the bases. They’re not afraid to do a lot of bunting and stealing, and their coach (Lisa) Macki does a good job of running them.”
Rams charging into state
While Eastern A teams Billings Central, Laurel and Miles City will go into the Class A state tournament with high hopes, they’ll also be looking to improve upon last year’s showing by the league. Conference teams Central, Laurel and Glendive combined to go 2-6 at last year’s state tournament, with the Rams and Locomotives getting one win each.
For the first time, though, a team from the Eastern A will go into state with one tournament championship already in its grasp. The Rams won last weekend’s inaugural divisional tournament with a title-game win over Miles City, and coach Coleman Rockwell is hopeful that momentum can carry over the state tournament.
“The way we won against Miles City – both our games (at divisionals) – we battled back. Those games were high-intensity, they meant something and it can be good or it can put you down,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a positive and that it’s a good momentum-builder. Coming off that win, I think we’re playing at a high level.”
• The AA tournament is a two-day event this year, meaning two teams will be eliminated on the first day. It also means teams that start play Friday from the loser’s bracket will need to win five straight games the second day to win the championship. “That’s very, very hard to do in high school with one or two pitchers,” DeVore said. “That’s next to impossible. You just tell your kids, ‘You have to take the high road and win.’ ” The A and B/C classes are still holding three-day tournaments.
• The defending champions: Great Falls (AA), Frenchtown (A) and Florence (B/C).
• Miles City is making its first-ever State A appearance after seven years as a varsity program. The Cowgirls will have plenty of time to quell any nerves: third-year coach Murrey Selk said it’s a 555-mile trip one way from Miles City to Polson.
• Frenchtown’s Morgan Ray, a junior who has already committed to pitch for Ohio State, has thrown five no-hitters this season in leading the Broncs to a 19-1 record. So it should come as no surprise that Frenchtown is considered a favorite to win its third State A title in the last six years. Western teams Frenchtown, Polson and Libby have combined to win each of the past seven championships.
• Florence took a surprising loss to St.Ignatius in the Western B/C divisional, but will still be the state favorite. Huntley Project and Stillwater had a good battle in the Eastern B/C, with the Red Devils winning a second championship over the Renegades 6-5. Stillwater took third at last year’s state tournament, while Huntley Project went two-and-out.