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Built from scratch, Griz softball team is off to a hot start
One of Jamie Pinkerton’s first softball recruits at the University of Montana wasn’t much interested in coming to Missoula.
Bethany Olea spent her first year of college at Arizona Western, which happens to be in the same town – Yuma – where she graduated high school. She was a find: a first-team junior college All-America player in 2014 and a great student. Not all junior college players are so polished. Not all desert-dwellers have the Colorado River running through their town, either.
“She just wanted to stay close to home,” Pinkerton says. “She already had excellent grades in high school and was a (NCAA academic) qualifier. Then I saw her play. I talked her into coming on a visit.”
Olea is but one cog in a UM softball team that sprang out of the South Campus turf and found itself, in just its third year of existence, just one win shy of claiming the Big Sky Conference title.
The program’s genesis traces to May 2011, when the Montana Board of Regents approved an increased student athletic fee to help UM remain in compliance with Title IX gender-equity guidelines. Then it was a matter of choosing a sport.
“Basically they did a needs and abilities assessment to see what would fit the best,” says UM Director of Athletics Kent Haslam. “And it was overwhelmingly softball. Softball was the easy answer, and you can see why.”
The Grizzlies play on a picturesque all-weather field, where 400 to 500 fans overfill the bleachers and drag lawn chairs to spots along the fenceline. It’s a gem, and it has cost $1.2 million so far, all raised through private funds.
Inside the fence stands Pinkerton, hired in 2014 to start the state’s lone Division I program. He is cautiously pleased: As the regular season closed, his club was on a tear and fought powerful Weber State for the league crown.
This is a tape-measure shot from that 2014 squad that had one player with D-I experience and a couple handfuls of walk-ons among 15 freshmen.
These Grizzlies are more grizzled, though Olea is the lone senior. A true freshman, Michaela Hood, is the ace of the pitching staff. Among 11 juniors is Delene Colburn, who hit north of .400 (as did Olea) and pounded out 14 homers as the Grizzlies posted a 32-22 regular-season record.
There have been injuries and absences, but the Grizzlies have persevered. Hood, who a year ago played for the Spring Valley High Grizzlies in Las Vegas and followed these Grizzlies on her laptop, is not surprised.
“I kind of saw it coming,” says Hood. “These girls are really good.”
This is the seventh coaching stop for Pinkerton, a 52-year-old who had two stints at his alma mater, the University of Tulsa.
That’s with a late start to the profession. He was an area manager for Coca-Cola when two things – helping coach his sister’s club team and middle-management layoffs at Coke – led to another: a graduate assistant coaching spot at Tulsa. From there he went to Louisiana-Monroe for a season as an assistant, and then spent two years on the staff at the University of Virginia before returning as Tulsa’s head coach in 2001.
He was successful in his four seasons there, which led to Arkansas snapping him up in 2002. Pinkerton’s record wasn’t as sharp with the Razorbacks, though in his last two seasons they made the NCAA Regional – the program’s first and second appearances.
Then the school changed athletic directors, and Pinkerton was on his way out.
“That’s the business side of things,” Pinkerton says. “I have no ill will.”
He came to Missoula after four seasons at Iowa State, and among the things he brought with him was a Cyclone tradition: The players would greet and thank the fans after every game.
It’s now a tradition at UM, too, where one path leads in and out of the ballpark nestled next to Dornblaser Stadium. The fans walk through a gauntlet of high-fiving Griz, not all of whom thought this was a great idea at first.
“Especially after a loss,” says Dani Walker, a junior catcher. “Now, if anything, it makes us feel better.”
Building a program has, despite all his years coaching, been a new experience for a guy his players call “Pink.”
He’d never held open tryouts before, which he did in the spring and fall of 2014. He could throw a rock in the Sooner State and hit a Division I player – most of his Tulsa teams were made up of Oklahomans – but that was not really possible in Montana.
Pinkerton heard naysayers when he made his first half-dozen signees. Fans pointed out that you needed nine to play, and there were no Montana players.
The following spring, Walker, whose father, Kirk, played basketball for the Griz, joined three other players in the ranks. Growing up in Las Vegas, the younger Walker had been a softball junkie. The Walkers moved to Deer Lodge when Dani was 12, and she had a stellar three-sport career for the Wardens. As soon as Pinkerton’s hiring was announced, she started firing off messages to the coach.
“I just thought it would be cool to play where my dad played and the sport I loved,” she says.
This was also a unique time in that Pinkerton, having scoured JC tournaments and the like in the fall of 2013, hit the high school ranks the following spring. He didn’t have a team to coach and ended up seeing, by his estimation, 80 percent of Montana’s high school programs play.
He can’t do that now. He’s coaching a team that has won 16, 29 and, as of this writing, 32 games in his three seasons. Instead Pinkerton tries to hit travel tournaments in the summer where players from all over – including Montana – compete.
Does he wish he had Morgan Ray, a recent Frenchtown star who committed to Ohio State before he was hired at UM? Absolutely. It’s easy to imagine how the pitcher would have given this fledgling program a boost.
But with the additions of Great Falls’ C.M. Russell High standouts Tristin Achenbach and Savanna Voyles, the Griz will have seven Montanans on the 2018 roster. The list also includes Sydney Stites, an outfielder from Bozeman who was the Big Sky’s Freshman of the Year in 2016.
“It’s funny how you get kids in different ways, through contacts over the years,” Pinkerton says.
His recruiting budget doesn’t stretch far, so when one of his former players and a current high school coach in Tulsa recommended someone, Pinkerton took note that he’d recruited four of her players to Arkansas and said, “Sure.”
“He never watched me play,” centerfielder McKenna McGill says. “It was kind of the luck of the draw. I’m pretty blessed.”
Hood grew up in Las Vegas and, like Walker, contacted Pinkerton first.
“I was never a desert person,” Hood says. “And I was a Grizzly in high school – that was really cool to me. And I love the cold.”
“She’s one of the few athletes who pursued us,” Pinkerton says. “She wanted something different than the desert life, as she called it. Probably 95 percent of the people who write are not Division I softball players (Pinkerton still cross-references and sees quite a few of them). Then she came to camp and was pretty impressive.”
In May 2014, Pinkerton added two players from a tryout: Madeline Merritt from Illinois and Big Sky High graduate Kelsey Lucostic of Missoula. Lucostic had played a couple years of junior college ball.
Pinkerton added his leadoff hitter, Olea, in the summer, and another tryout landed, among others, Katie Jo Waletsko out of Missoula’s Hellgate High.
Pinkerton has 12 scholarships to divvy up, but didn’t see the point of having to replace 12 or more players at once in 2019. He is trying to split his big junior class into two, recruiting-wise – sign six or seven players for 2018, swelling the roster to a couple dozen or more, and then five or so the next year.
Success has come fast, and it is worth noting that this team is minus Lexie Brenneis, who left the program last May after putting together an All-Big Sky junior season.
Then came St. Paddy’s Day.
Pinkerton was tossed from a loss to Maine in which McGill smashed into the fence. She made the catch but tore her ACL. The Grizzlies lost 7-4 and fell to 10-15.
“She is a pretty critical player,” Walker says of McGill. “Missing her is huge. But Alex Wardlow has stepped in and done a great job. We have a lot of skill on our team. Pink did a good job of getting good, quality softball players. Our practices are well-organized. We get in there and work really hard. We’re all getting more mature, and you see good things happening.”
A couple years ago, Pinkerton held an open dinner that was part fundraiser, part Meet the Grizzlies. He was hoping to cover the cost of pizza, but more than 100 people paid their way and put the event in the black. Some 300 people showed up for the latest dinner. Such good fellowship tends to rub off.
“And we’re even winning a few games,” Pinkerton says. “I don’t think we’re there yet, but that’s coaching. We could be No. 1 in the nation and I would feel like we’re not there yet.”
Twenty-five years ago Pinkerton was content. He’d had a chance to play junior college baseball coming out of high school, but his Coca-Cola job made him a homeowner at 19, and he met his wife in front of a Coke machine.
Now he is content again.
“I was joking with (Coach) Lori Perez at Sac State,” Pinkerton says. “She said, ‘You always leave programs better than you found them.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, they win championships after I leave.’”
This is partly accurate: Tulsa has gone to eight NCAA Regionals since he left for Arkansas, but the Razorbacks have slumped, winning just one SEC game in 2015 and 2016.
Still, Pinkerton says, “It could end today, and this sport owes me nothing. It’s been that good of an experience for me. That’s why I always try to work hard, because the game’s given me more than I’ve put in.”
Even in this rainiest of springs, it’s hard not to see blue skies ahead for Grizzly softball. The stadium will eventually have 600 permanent seats, locker rooms and a press box, and, hopefully, a team with multiple Big Sky titles.
“We became relevant very quick,” Haslam notes. “We knew we had a great coach who had done this kind of thing before. He’s an amazing recruiter who knew what the process was.
“We still have a lot we want to accomplish. But it’s been a great addition to our community and to our athletic department.”
(Editor’s note: After the Montanan went to print, the Grizzlies won the Big Sky Conference tournament title and advanced to the NCAA tournament, where they were defeated by the University of Washington and Fresno State.)