Future Griz softball team the talk of the state

June 18, 2012

Check back to GoGriz.com through the spring and summer of 2013 for updates on the future Montana softball program.

For a program that does not have a coach, does not have a single player or piece of equipment, does not have a home field and really does not even exist outside of some financial spreadsheets and long-range planning documents, the (future) Montana softball team sure has the state buzzing.

The Grizzly softball team is still more than 30 months from playing its first game, but the program will soon be mimicking the catch line from the movie "Field of Dreams": If you build it, (s)he will come.

"I've been waiting 25 years for this," says longtime Polson High School coach Larry Smith, who has led the Pirates to seven Class A state titles since 2001. "It's going to have a huge impact on the state."

Smith's quarter century spent waiting patiently for an in-state Division I softball program is finally going to be rewarded, just not as immediately as he or any of the other excited prep softball players or coaches in the state would like.

The program -- long rumored -- took the first step toward reality in May 2011 when the Board of Regents took ASUM's yes vote on an increased student athletic fee and made the increase official with its own stamp of approval.

The student athletic fee increase was not written specifically for the addition of a women's softball program. Instead it was approved to help the University remain in compliance with Title IX gender equity issues.

Because of the growing popularity of the sport at the prep level in the state, Griz softball, which will be funded in large part from the increased student athletic fees, was the logical choice to become Montana's 15th sport.

"Softball has become really prominent at the high school level, and there is incredible excitement in the state for the future of the sport," UM interim Director of Athletics Jean Gee, a former softball player herself, says.

"I've heard from a number of softball coaches, and they are excited that girls will have an opportunity to stay in their home state and play at the Division I level."

That excitement will need to be tempered in the short term.

Montana won't be hiring its first coach until next spring. If the Board of Regents' vote 13 months ago was the first step in the creation of the program, having a coach on board will be the giant leap that takes the team from mere ink on paper documents to finally having a face and a voice.

The future coach will spend the 2013-14 school year assembling a coaching staff, recruiting players, scheduling games, stockpiling equipment and helping secure practice and playing fields.

It won't be until 2014-15 -- more specifically early February of 2015, probably at a weekend tournament at Tempe, Ariz., or some other warm, sun-splashed location -- that the historic opening pitch is delivered, either thrown by the Grizzlies' first-ever starting pitcher or eyed by the program's first leadoff hitter.

For the state's prep softball players who just completed their sophomore seasons, their freshman year in college -- 2014-15 -- will coincide with the anticipated start of the program.

"I think it will really up the expectation level in the high school game," says Smith, whose biggest challenge 25 years ago when starting the Polson program was allaying the fears of parents whose primary concern was girls getting hurt. As Smith suggests about a fan base that now hopes for state titles, they've come a long way.

"You're going to start seeing girls taking that extra step of commitment, because they are now thinking they want to play at the next level. That's going to make the players and the sport across the state that much better."

With North Dakota and Southern Utah -- both of which field teams -- officially joining the Big Sky Conference next month, the league will have seven softball-playing schools next spring.

Those teams will play an 18-game conference schedule -- each team will play a three-game weekend series against each of the other six teams -- next March and April. From May 9-11 the top four teams will compete in the first Big Sky Conference tournament, with the winner making the NCAA tournament.

"That is going to be an incredible recruiting tool, not only for Montana but for every program in the Big Sky Conference that has softball," Gee says.

"Teams are going to have the opportunity to participate in the NCAAs immediately, without any kind of waiting period."

The seven teams that will be playing next spring will be moving in from three different conferences.

Idaho State, Northern Colorado, Portland State, Sacramento State and Weber State all played this past season in the 12-team Pacific Coast Softball Conference.

North Dakota competed in the Great West Conference, Southern Utah in the Summit League.

At 27-19 Sac State had the group's best record last season, but it was Portland State, which won the PCSC Mountain Division and then a three-game playoff against PCSC Coastal Division champion St. Mary's, that was the group's lone team to make the double-elimination NCAA tournament.

The Vikings, who have made the NCAA tournament four of the last seven seasons, lost to Oregon last month in the opening round of the Eugene Regional, then shut out Mississippi State before losing to BYU.

If the rosters of the future Big Sky softball teams offer any guidance, Montana will likely have a squad of 18 to 20 players. Idaho State and Portland State both fielded teams of just 17 players last spring. Sacramento State had the largest roster at 21.

NCAA softball is an equivalency sport, meaning Montana's coach will be able to divide up the program's scholarships in any way the coach sees fit, from a full ride to any percentage of that.

The NCAA allows a Division I softball program to offer a maximum of 12 scholarships. Montana will have fewer than that in the program's first two years of existence, then be fully funded by the program's third year (2016-17).

If all these futuristic dates -- first pitch in 2015, fully funded by 2017 -- seem way too far down the road to get excited about Griz softball in June 2012, listen to someone who has been waiting since 1988.

"It will go by fast, and Montana will have a softball program before you know it," Smith says, then adds: "It's an exciting game with a lot of action. Once fans get a taste of it, they'll be hooked."

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