SIDNEY — It’s been a heartbreaking few days for the Thatcher family and the Butte Central softball team. Same can be said for the Kehrs of Columbia Falls.
Both families — and teams — were upended by deaths this week as they prepared for the Class A state softball tournament. Alex Thatcher, 23, sister of Butte Central pitcher Kloie, died Sunday morning, the result of a train accident in Miles City. Bob Kehr, the father of Columbia Falls coach Dave, passed away in Pennsylvania on Tuesday morning.
But Thursday, at the first day of the state tournament in Sidney, there was a Thatcher and a Kehr providing two of the state tournament’s biggest first-day highlights.
Kloie Thatcher, her first game in the circle since her sister’s death, pitched a perfect game in the Maroons’ tournament opener, a 10-0 win over Sidney. No hits, no walks, no errors behind her. And she struck out 10 of the 15 batters she faced in the five-inning game.
“It’s such a cool thing to see as a coach, because it’s been an emotional week not only for our family but for our softball family,” said Butte Central coach Kelci Thatcher, a cousin of Alex and Kloie. “It was just such a fun win in all sorts of ways.
“I hope (Kloie) knows how proud we are of her and how proud her sister is. She’s here with her every day. She’s with her in spirit, she’s with her in her heart and out here on the field.”
The Maroons didn’t have the same fortune later in the day. Belgrade beat Butte Central 11-1 in a second-round game, sending the Panthers into Friday’s quarterfinal round along with defending champion Frenchtown and Hamilton. Frenchtown beat Stevensville 11-1 and Hamilton beat Polson 2-1.
The fourth quarterfinal spot will be decided Friday morning. Thursday’s final second-round game between Columbia Falls and Miles City was suspended after four innings due to darkness with the Wildkats ahead 5-2. That game will be picked up at 8 a.m. Friday.
In Thursday’s first round, Stevensville held off Glendive 5-4; Polson beat Lewistown 9-1; and Columbia Falls walked off Havre 10-9 in eight innings.
It was Peyton Kehr, daughter of Columbia Falls coach Dave and granddaughter to Bob, who provided the dramatic moment of the day.
After her team fell behind Havre 9-8 in the eighth inning, Kehr hit a line-drive two-run home run to left center, lifting the Wildkats to victory and a joyous celebration at home plate.
“That was something,” Dave Kehr said. “I didn’t quite expect that.”
Kehr flew home last Friday to be with his ailing father. He returned Wednesday, flying into Williston, North Dakota, and getting to Sidney at 11:30 p.m., less than 12 hours before his team was scheduled to take the field Thursday.
“I’m tired,” Kehr said. “You know what I mean?”
Frenchtown never seems to get tired of winning. Champions the past four seasons, the Broncs escaped a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the second against Stevensville unscathed. Then Frenchtown put up five runs in its half of the inning and the Broncs were on their way.
“I think it’s always toughest to get the first run of the first game at the state tournament,” Frenchtown coach Eli Field said. “It just took us an inning or two. We knew Stevensville can hit, we knew they were pretty talented, so to get out of the second inning, that was a big moment.”
Frenchtown and Belgrade both entered the tournament 18-1. And both looked like their paths will cross this tournament in a high-stakes game or two.
“The girls are hungry,” Belgrade coach Mike Neubauer said. “They came out and stung the ball pretty well.”
After the completion of the suspended game, Friday’s schedule looks like this: Stevensville and Havre play a 9 a.m. loser-out game, as do Polson and Sidney. Glendive plays the Miles City-Columbia Falls loser in a loser-out game at 11 a.m. Butte Central and Lewistown play a loser-out game, also at 11.
In the winner’s bracket, Frenchtown faces Hamilton at 1 p.m. and Belgrade takes on the winner of Columbia Falls and Miles City, also at 1 p.m.