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Grizzly softball field

Grizzly softball field

The Montana softball team begins its third-straight quest to play for the Big Sky Conference Championship on Thursday.

Montana, the tournament’s No. 5 seed, will open play at the double-elimination event with an opening-round game against No. 4 Portland State at 9:30 a.m., at Weber State’s Wildcat Softball Field in Ogden, Utah.

This is the third consecutive year Weber State has hosted the tournament. The Wildcats, the No. 2 seed, earned the right to host based on last year’s regular-season championship. Likewise, Sacramento State, this year’s No. 1 seed, has already locked up hosting rights for next year.

8 Championship Week storylines

1. Montana is making its third consecutive appearance at the Big Sky tournament in its four-year history. The previous two were also held at Weber State.

The Grizzlies are 5-2 in tournament games, going 2-2 in 2016, as the No. 4 seed, 3-0 last year as the No. 2 seed on their way to the title while outscoring their opponents 19-6.

2. Montana has the most experienced team in the field. The Grizzlies have a roster made up of 11 seniors, 10 of whom have been with the program since it debuted in 2015.

Seniors MaKenna McGill (180), Gabby Martinez (207), Delene Colburn (217) and Ashlyn Lyons (184) have all been starters since they were freshmen and have started 788 games between them.

Colburn has started all 217 games in Montana’s history.

3. This week will be a return to the scene of Montana’s top moment in its short history. Behind tournament MVP Michaela Hood, the Grizzlies won three games on Weber State’s field last May, two over the Wildcats, to win the title and advance to the program’s first NCAA tournament.

Hood pitched Montana to an 8-0 victory over Idaho State, threw 177 pitches as the Grizzlies outlasted Weber State 2-1 in 10 innings in the all-important winners’ bracket final and pitched until she ran out of gas in Montana’s 9-5 win over the Wildcats that ended the tournament in the Grizzlies’ favor.

Colburn was voted all-tournament in both 2016 and ’17. Alex Wardlow, all-tournament in 2016, is the only other player on this year’s team who has been voted to the team.

4. First-year Montana coach Melanie Meuchel is no stranger to the pressures of May, but it will be her first time facing it as a head coach.

She has been working at the Division I level since 2003 and has been on the coaching staff of five teams that have advanced to the NCAA tournament, so she knows what it takes to get it done.

5. Good news for Montana: Hood may make a return to the field this week. A first-team All-Big Sky selection last season, Hood hasn’t pitched since April 13 and hasn’t won a game since April 7.

Hood went 18-7 last year, finishing the season with 178 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.31. She is 7-8 this year, with 82 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.78, which is still good enough to rank fifth in the Big Sky.

6. History indicates Montana will have a hard time winning the championship. No team lower than the No. 3 seed has won the title since the first Big Sky tournament in 2013.

7. Montana faced Portland State in Missoula last month in the teams’ regular-season series.

The Grizzlies lost 6-3, won 3-2 in eight innings on Kylie Hayton’s walk-off single and lost 3-2 in the finale when Madison Saacke’s deep fly ball with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the seventh was caught on the warning track.

Montana leads the series with Portland State 7-6 and defeated the Vikings 14-8 when the teams met in the 2016 tournament in Ogden.

8. The winner of Thursday morning’s game will face No. 1 Sacramento State at 2:30 p.m. The loser will drop down into the bottom bracket, where teams are one loss away from heading home. That team will play at noon on Friday.

In Thursday’s other opening-round game, No. 3 North Dakota will play No. 6 Northern Colorado at noon (and for the first time this season. The teams’ series in Grand Forks was cancelled because it was scheduled for Grand Forks in the spring.) The winner plays No. 2 Weber State at 5 p.m.