Five innings of four-hit ball against Stevensville and eight K’s later at the Broncs’ annual Frenchtown Invite, Morgan Ray’s first start became her first varsity victory. But it’s hard for her to recall much of that outing; it felt like more than just butterflies were bouncing around in her stomach.
“I was more nervous than I ever could have been,” remembered Ray, now a Gatorade Player of the Year winner and Frenchtown junior, laughing at the memory.
In the short time since the spring of 2012, Ray’s meteoric rise has come with no-hitters – almost too many to count – a State A championship and a verbal commitment to pitch for Ohio State in 2016. Field won’t say he saw it all coming, but the talent was pretty obvious even then. Ray just needed an opportunity to shine.
“She sprained her ankle on a fence one day in practice early in her freshman year,” Field started, “so we kind of really didn’t discover – well, I mean we knew she was good – but we didn’t really discover her until later on in the year.”
By Year 2, Ray’s performance gave Frenchtown a bonafide 1-2 starting duo along with senior Abby Indreland, a Utah State hurler now.
“Even somebody as good as Abby recognized, hey this kid’s got to pitch too,” Field said.
That 2013 campaign ended in a Broncs’ state title with Ray named the state’s top softball player – something most any hitter in Montana could have told tell you already.
Ray is a pitcher with deep pockets and lots of pitches buried in them: a fastball that she can control both with a rising tail and a drop, a curveball, a changeup, a screwball.
It’s been the heater that grabs most folks’ attention though.
“Last year I was very, well, scared of her I guess,” said Frenchtown catcher Brooke Yarnall. “She’s so fast. It was definitely hard to get used to.”
Ray’s laser beams top out around 68 miles per hour, she said, and consistently run through the mid-60s region.
Now for some perspective. Those underhand missiles are fired from 43 feet away, the distance from the pitcher’s rubber to home plate on a softball diamond. That means batters have roughly the same amount of time to react – a hair over 1/3 of a second – as a baseball hitter does when facing a 98-mph pitch from 60 feet, 6 inches, on their regulation diamond.
The heat is scalding, Field acknowledged, but Ray rarely settles for just that.
“She chuckles – sometimes people will say nice pitch because a girl swung and missed,” Field said. “But she’s thinking, ‘That wasn’t a nice pitch because it wasn’t where I wanted.’ She knows better. She is by no means satisfied with where she’s at.”
Ray sifts through her pitches like a homeowner prowling the market: it’s all about location, location, location.
“I was hard on myself after that (Polson) game. I know that wasn’t my best game,” Ray said of last week’s 17-5 win over the Pirates, a rematch of last year’s state title contest. “I knew I need to pick it up, at least for myself and especially before I go to college, and work on my accuracy. It’s not just about the heat because these people are good hitters.”
Ray gave up seven hits to Polson after coming into the game having surrendered just one. She no-hit Corvallis on opening day before treating Timberlake, Idaho, to the same fate two days later. Then came a seven more innings of no-no ball in jamboree play against Havre and Lewistown before a Belgrade batter finally caught up to a Ray pitch.
It was more of the same Friday in the Broncs’ opener at this year’s rendition of the Frenchtown Invitational. Six innings, no hits, 11 K’s, and one beat-up and bruised Anaconda softball squad on the wrong side of a 10-0 final.
The win moved Frenchtown to 5-0 on the young season and Ray has four of those pitching victories – and yes, three of them of the no-hit variety.
That’s a few more feathers in an already very full cap. Ray posted a 14-1 record last year with 203 strikeouts in her more than 100 innings pitched.
And don’t forget, this pitcher plays both ways. She hit over .500 last season with six home runs and 39 RBIs. She’s already got 16 RBIs and three bombs this spring while raking at a .650 clip.
Under all those numbers, it’s hard to remember that this prized Bronc is only a junior. She may have come a long way in two years, but Ray still has the better part of two high school seasons in front of her too.
“I have so much more confidence out there,” she said. “I’ve pitched so many more games now and I know Field, know our team. I know what it’s like to win a state championship now and I know what I have to do to really help my team keep getting better.”
And that’s the scariest part for the rest of Montana softball.