When softball practice started this year, Billings Skyview coach Scott Lynch allowed his team to write slogans on their practice jerseys.
The choice for many was "Play until Saturday," meaning the team wanted to survive the first two days of the state tournament.
That may seem like a modest goal to most teams. But the Falcons have won just one state tournament game the last five years, according to Lynch, and getting to play the final day of the tournament would be a big step.
"We have a bigger vision than just to play a game, and that is to change our tradition here," said Lynch, who is in his first season as head coach after five as an assistant. "We have kids who have bought into that, they believe it, and they have the ability to carry it out."
The Falcons finished the season at 13-9 and played Billings West for the Eastern AA league championship the final game of the regular season. West won, and as a result of tie-breakers, Skyview dropped all the way to the conference's No. 4 seed for the State AA tournament, which begins today in Kalispell.
But the drop from a possible league title to middle-of-the-pack status hasn't changed his team's outlook, Lynch said.
"We're not looking for any breaks. We haven't looked for any breaks from anyone other than ourselves all season long," he said. "When a team wins a title, no one helped them out, they earned it."
Skyview has reached contender status with a much improved offense.
Lonnie Polkow leads the way with a .413 average, followed by Melissa St. John (.347), Kim Getman (.339) and Mandy Lyon (.327). St. John leads the team with 18 RBIs and a .569 slugging percentage.
The Falcons improved their run production from 46 runs in 22 games last season to 118 runs in 22 games this year. And it's all been in support of a solid pitching staff of Kelcey Cavan (3-2, 0.81 ERA), Lauren Gustafson (6-1, 1.47) and Erica Dahl (4-5, 2.13).
It's numbers like those that has Lynch thinking the 2003 Falcons are ready to take the program in a different direction.
"A lot of times on a journey like this, someone has to lead the way, and I think it's these girls," he said. "I think they're going to lead the way."
Billings West West's seven seniors have led the way most of the year for the Bears, and coach Ed Kriskovich is looking for them to lead even more this weekend.
"Now's the time for them to come out and show their mental toughness, their physical abilities and the four years they've put into this program," Kriskovich said. "This is their time to shine, it really is. You work for this for four years and you've got the opportunity to play and they've been playing well. Now's the time to take the bull by the horn and put it all together for three or four games."
The Bears (13-9) have put it together for most of the season.
Bree Summers (.408), Jacque Walen (.391), Shelli Vicars (.350), Faith Johnson (.329), Dana Conway (.329), Cari Dunlap (.313) and Megan Reitz (.309) have helped the Bears to a .316 batting average. Johnson leads the team with 18 RBIs, followed by Summers with 17.
Krista Radi leads the way on the mound. She has a 9-2 record with a 1.87 ERA, and has struck out 94 batters in 71 innings. Katie Singer is 4-6 with a 2.65 ERA.
West is certainly has the individual components — offense, pitching and defense — to challenge for title. Kriskovich just hopes his team has all those components clicking at the same time.
"I think we are where we want to be," he said. "I think the kids are beginning to peak, they're starting to play at the top of their game. It's just a matter of coming together and putting one solid game together one after another."
Billings Senior The defending Class AA champions finished the season at 13-9, and they've had their share of ups and downs.
On the upside, Sara Tuomi and Jenna Haacke have had outstanding seasons at the plate. Tuomi is hitting .444 with 12 RBIs, mostly out of the leadoff spot, while Haacke is hitting .343 with four home runs and 32 RBIs.
Senior coach Dave Draeger said Haacke's RBI total could be a school record.
The pitching has been solid, though not spectacular, and the defense has been suspect at times. But give the right support, Kelly Marquardt (3-3, 4.14 ERA), Terryn Fugere (6-3, 2.29) and Kelly Rickard (4-2, 3.60) can keep the Broncs in any game.
"We just hope we can go to Kalispell and get hot for as many games as we possibly can," Draeger said. "I think we've shown that we can score some runs at times, and if we can get a pitcher or two hot at the right time and play good defense, we could be real successful.
"The key for us, I think, is can we keep people from scoring runs. That's been our problem at times throughout the year. It's been both pitching and defensively."
State AA at Kalispell
First round, 1:30 p.m. — Great Falls CMR vs. Missoula Hellgate; Billings Senior vs. Butte; Helena vs. Great Falls High; Helena Capital vs. Bozeman; Billings Skyview vs. Missoula Big Sky.
Second round, 4:30 p.m. — Billings West vs. CMR-Hellgate winner; Missoula Sentinel vs. Butte-Senior winner; Helena-Great Falls winner vs. Capital-Bozeman winner; Kalispell vs. Skyview-Big Sky winner.
State A at Butte
First round, 11 a.m. — Butte Central vs. Columbia Falls; Whitefish vs. Corvallis.
First round, 1 p.m. — Polson vs. Glendive; Belgrade vs. Ronan.
Second round, 3 p.m. — Billings Central vs. Butte Central-Columbia Falls winner; Libby vs. Whitefish-Corvallis winner.
Second round, 5 p.m. — Laurel vs. Polson-Glendive winner; Hamilton vs. Belgrade-Ronan winner.
State B-C at Helena
First round, 11 a.m. — Huntley Project vs. Plains; Thompson Falls vs. St. Ignatius; Missoula Loyola vs. Columbus; Noxon vs. Simms.
First round, 1 p.m. — Shepherd vs. Poplar; Florence vs. Conrad; Glasgow vs. Cut Bank; Frenchtown vs. Eureka.
Second round, 3:30 p.m. — Huntley Project-Plains winner vs. Thompson Falls-St. Ignatius winner; Missoula Loyola-Columbus winner vs. Noxon-Simms winner.
Second round, 5 p.m. — Shepherd-Poplar winner vs. Florence-Conrad winner; Glasgow-Cut Bank winner vs. Frenchtown-Eureka winner.