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Creech and Shellnutt hug

Billings West first baseman Makenzie Shellnutt, right, gives pitcher Jalen Creech a hug after the Bears defeated Missoula Big Sky 3-2 to win the State AA softball championship last week in Great Falls.

The way Billings West won the State AA softball championship -- the sheer improbability of it -- caught the eye of several national media outlets on Monday and Tuesday.

As the popular sports website Deadspin noted, we’ve all dreamt of hitting a walk-off home run. But scoring a championship-winning run after a dropped third strike? Who could imagine such a scenario?

Unlikely as it may be, Kendyl Boltz pulled it off for the Bears. Boltz struck out swinging in the seventh inning of Friday’s State AA title game, but the pitch was in the dirt and Missoula Big Sky catcher Jaime Schafer couldn’t handle it.

Boltz then broke for first base and came all the way around to score after two subsequent errors. The Bears had won the state championship with a 3-2 victory.

When the winning highlight (which was shot by Mike Stefansson of KULR-TV in Billings) was unveiled as the No. 1 play on SportsCenter on Monday night, the ESPN anchor said something to the effect of: “If you say you’ve seen that happen before, you’re lying.”

There’s no official way of knowing how many times a game, much less a championship game, has ended in such a bizarre way. It was certainly a first for the eyes of veteran coach Ed Kriskovich, and he’s seen just about everything in 29 seasons at West.

“In the 50 years I’ve been around softball and playing men’s fastpitch and coaching the girls, I’ve never seen it,” Kriskovich said. “I’ve seen triple plays, I’ve seen all kinds of stuff, but I’ve never seen one end like that. It’s a win, but it’s a rare way to win.”

The physical, mental and emotional toll of having to win five consecutive elimination games was evident immediately after Boltz scored. Boltz was swarmed by her teammates. Incredulous parents and fans flew into a frenzy. And Jalen Creech, perhaps the Bears’ biggest hero, collapsed to her knees.

Kriskovich rushed to check on his senior pitcher, thinking she might have been ready to faint.

“When I put my arm around that kid, she was exhausted,” Kriskovich said. “Mentally and physically drained. I thought she was going to hyperventilate. What a performance from a kid. She was the last one standing.”

“I just had to bear down and throw,” said Creech, who labored through 31 innings on Friday. “I’m just really proud of myself that I could pull that off, and keep throwing and keep my pitches moving.”

Later at dinner, Kriskovich noticed a few of his players nearly falling asleep at the table.

"I got to thinking ... how many sports play five games in a row and get on the field at 7:45 in the morning, and you don’t have any time away from the field except a 20 minute break in between games?" Kriskovich said. "What are we asking kids to do? And no matter what we asked them to do, those kids performed exceptionally."

Per the Montana High School Association's experimental two-day tournament format, which was only used for the AA, West had little time to eat, drink, refresh or refocus between games. Big Sky had beaten the Bears 1-0 on the strength of Macey Newbary’s brilliant pitching in a first-round game on Thursday, so they faced the prospect of having to win five straight on Friday to win the title.

It was an unheard-of scenario. But the Bears did it.

Kriskovich can’t say enough great things about Creech. She shut out Helena Capital in the first game on Friday, and then beat rival Billings Skyview in the fourth-place game. Against CMR, Creech came on in relief to earn the victory as the Bears took advantage of three seventh-inning errors by the Rustlers.

And in 16 championship innings against Big Sky, Creech had 24 strikeouts and just two walks.

After winning the title, 4.0 honors student and Bears catcher Maranda Ratcliff rewrote her valedictorian speech to include the inspiration her teammates drew from Creech’s performance.

On Sunday, during West’s commencement ceremony at Rimrock Auto Arena, Ratcliff delivered her message:

“Jalen Creech can teach us all something about life. If you put your real heart into something, anything is possible. Jalen dug deep and found the strength and perseverance to win (five) more games and win the championship.

“When everyone thought she would have nothing left to give, she found more. Every moment that Jalen spent giving it her all resulted in a memory that will last a lifetime.

“West High Class of 2014, my advice to you is, ‘Be like J. Find something to believe in, and despite the odds, never give up.’”