It was a clean sweep for the Northwestern conference at last year’s Montana Class A state softball tournament in Belgrade and it very well could be again this time around in Polson.
Action starts at 11 a.m. at Polson’s softball complex with two games: Livingston-Anaconda and Miles City-Havre.
It isn’t until 1 p.m. that two of the three Northwestern teams get into action, with second-seeded Polson takes on Eastern third-seed Laurel and No. 3 seed Libby facing Southwestern second seed Butte Central.
“I think the Northwest is without a doubt the toughest conference in the state,” said Hamilton coach Jason Goligoski, whose team has the top seed out of Southwestern A. “Especially when you look at Columbia Falls, who got third at state last year, and they didn’t even make it this year.”
“I feel bad for Columbia Falls, because, honestly, I feel that they’re one of the top seven teams in the state and they’re not going.”
The Polson Pirates (16-3) are looking for a fifth consecutive trip to the title game. After winning three consecutive titles from 2010-12 behind pitcher Shalaina Duford, Polson fell to Frenchtown, the reigning champion and this year’s top seed out of the Northwest, for the runner-up finish.
Seniors Jaylin Kenney, Kyrie Bitterman and Jessica Bagnell lead the Pirates into state.
“We have three great senior leaders that have really picked up their game and gotten stronger,” Polson coach Larry Smith said. “Their goal is definitely to be in that championship game come Saturday.”
Libby (16-5) defeated Columbia Falls in last week’s NWA divisional tournament to replace 2013’s third-place team.
With the likes of Kelsey Klin, Devon Gallagher, Dayln Germany and Hannah England leading the way, the Loggers are hoping for a rare trip for a No. 3 seed to make it to Saturday’s championship game.
“It’s anybody’s game going into the tournament,” Libby head coach Dean Thompson said. “If we play well, we can compete with anybody.”
Frenchtown (19-1) rates as the top team in the state behind its standout junior pitcher, Morgan Ray.
But Ray does more than hurl a softball.
She posted a 17-1 mark for the Broncs from the circle during the regular season while batting .580 with 10 home runs and 44 RBIs.
“Morgan is going to keep us in games,” Frenchtown head coach Eli Field said. “She’s a competitor. She’s probably going to try to push herself to the next level, just like she did last year at state.
“I’m kind of anxious to see what she does do this weekend. She had such a great approach to last year’s state tournament. I’m sure she’ll try to do some more of the same.”
Ray is joined by senior leaders Vanessa Stavish and Kayla Blood in the Broncs’ run for a second straight title.
“It’d be nice for the kids, especially the seniors,” Field said of potentially repeating. “You always want to see your kids go out the best way possible.
“The neat thing about this team is that they’ve talked very little of last year. They’re approaching this as a whole new opportunity – independent of last year. It would be nice to see the commitment they made to this season pan out with a championship for them.”
Frenchtown has a first-round bye and will face the winner of the Miles City-Havre game at 3 p.m. Thursday. Although the Broncs beat Havre earlier this season, Field said he isn’t overly familiar with either opponent.
“I’m just anxious to get up there and see who we play,” he said. “Havre played us tough and I hear Miles City is playing their best ball right now.”
Western Montana’s other bye went to Hamilton (20-5), which will face the Polson-Laurel winner Thursday at 5 p.m.
The Broncs of the Southwestern A are led by junior shortstop Taylor Goligoski and senior hurler Brie Clifford.
“It starts with – and I knew coming into this year that they would be the catalysts of the team – our two all-state players from last year,” Jason Goligoski said. “Brie Clifford in the circle; she always gives us a chance to win. And then with Taylor out at short fielding the way she fields and hitting in the middle of our order, swinging and running the bases – we knew we had a very good foundation for our team with those two.”
Also representing the Southwest are Butte Central and Anaconda.
Second-seeded Butte Central (16-8) is led by sophomore pitcher Shawnee Hjelt, while the third-seeded Copperheads (13-12) feature standout senior catcher Courtney Moodry.
Billings Central and Belgrade earned byes as the Eastern and Central No. 1 seed, respectively.