University of Montana
From Scratch: Montana’s building a softball program from the ground up
By Andy Bixler
Last September, Dani Walker sat in the passenger seat of her mom’s car as it wound its way along Interstate 90. She wondered if she had made the right choice.
The two were driving from Deer Lodge to a camp in Tri-Cities, Wash., where she knew University of Montana’s new softball coach, Jamie Pinkerton, would be scouting players for his program.
It was raining when they left Deer Lodge, and Walker wondered if it was a sign. She had just gotten off the phone with her volleyball coach, explaining why she would miss that night’s game against Florence.
She was chasing a dream.
“I like volleyball, but softball was always where my heart is.”
It was her first major softball clinic, and Walker didn’t think she performed well – she missed a few easy throws, and her hitting seemed off. When she left the following day, she was convinced her dream was over before it began.
“My hitting just wasn’t right – I was missing things I usually don’t miss.”
Walker, a catcher, is a decorated Montana high school athlete. She’s received all-state honors at the State B-C level three years in a row.
UM’s addition of a softball team for the 2014-2015 season is a chance for Walker and girls all over Montana to play softball in-state at the Division I level, an opportunity they never had before.
Softball was only offered at the collegiate level at two schools in Montana before UM created a team – MSU-Billings and Carroll College, which are Division II and NAIA schools, respectively.
“My dad went (to UM), and I’ve always been a Griz fan,” Walker says. “I always figured if I wanted to play softball at a higher level, I would have to go out of state, or settle for one of the smaller schools.
“I was so happy when the Griz announced they were getting a team.”
The Montana Grizzlies softball team is entirely new. From the bats and balls to the players and coaches, this season will be an exercise in the unfamiliar.
But for now, the team is simply stretching out. Lined up against the old, worn-out fence at Sentinel High School last Tuesday, they used elastic cords to stretch their arms and shoulders. One of the girls glanced uneasily at the sky, which had been gray all day.
“I hope it doesn’t start coming down,” she says.
Soon, the group moved to sprints, and then a throwing drill, before finally taking their positions around the field.
“Everybody up!” Head coach Jamie Pinkerton shouted from home plate, before ripping off a grounder, which was fielded smoothly and thrown to the first baseman, completing the imaginary play.
It’s been two weeks since the team held its inaugural practice on Sept. 3, and already, a routine has developed. Pinkerton’s assistant coach took over and hit balls to each position, while Pinkerton stood to the side and gave suggestions.
“Don’t flip your glove over! Stay down on it! Nice throw!”
The team is about to make program history. Saturday, Griz softball will play its first game, against Dawson Community College.
Back in May, Jamie Pinkerton’s office was a mess.
Hidden in a cramped room that used to house UM’s NCAA compliance offices, his desk was a clutter of green and orange Post-it notes and legal memo pads. On the wall behind him hung miniature calendars and a plaque that read, “WAC Coach of the Year – 2012.”
To the right, cardboard boxes filled with unopened softballs and bats were stacked higher than his head, a reminder of all the work ahead of him.
“Those boxes, they’re just mocking me sometimes,” he said.
Pinkerton spent much of his life in Oklahoma, including a head coaching stint at Tulsa University. His accent doesn’t betray much – it’s barely noticeable at times, and his voice isn’t loud, a rarity among Division I coaches.
Pinkerton was hired in August 2013 as the first-ever head coach of the softball team. His job at that point hadn’t involved much coaching. He moved to Missoula at the end of the month and began recruiting.
Starting a program from scratch isn’t easy. Pinkerton had to do nearly everything, along with his assistant Melanie Muechel’s help, to make sure the team was ready to play this fall.
First up: making sure there would even be a team.
“Traditionally, recruiting players to a program relies on things like a program’s history, you know, like how many conference championships they’ve won, how many times they’ve gone to NCAAs, who the best players to come here have been,” Pinkerton said.
But Montana had no tradition, no history to sell and had no future teammates for prospects to meet. This was part of the process, and part of the allure for Pinkerton.
“I’ve done a lot of recruiting over my career. A lot,” he said. “It’s been kind of fun going at it from a different angle.”
He now has 17 players, up from 12 just last spring. After recruiting, Pinkerton held an open tryout to any interested UM students, a practice he says is common in softball, but especially important when starting the first Division I team in the state.
“Frankly, there’s probably some talent out there on campus that is good enough, but was missed because they just weren’t recruited, or weren’t interested in playing at a small school,” he said.
After last spring’s tryouts, Pinkerton signed two recruits to his roster – Madeline Merritt, an outfielder from Illinois, and Kelsey Lucostic, a Missoula native who played two years of junior college ball at Olympic College in Bremmerton, Wash., after graduating from Big Sky High School in 2011.
They are two of only four non-freshmen on the roster.
“I trained really hard with my club team all winter, trying to be in the best shape I could be,” Lucostic says.
Growing up in Missoula gives some kids a special tie to the Grizzlies. Lucostic remembers warm fall afternoons watching Griz football with her dad, and bitter cold winter nights watching the Lady Griz with her mom.
But she never imagined she would get the opportunity to suit up for her hometown school.
“I was such a big fan growing up,” she says. “And I never thought I would get this chance – to have my family watch me play for our team. Being a Griz, it’s literally the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me.”
The last time the University of Montana started a team was in 1993. The United States was about to host the men’s FIFA World Cup, and soccer was exploding in popularity, so Montana added a women’s soccer team.
Twenty-one years later, softball is the newest UM sport.
“It’s a really fast-paced, exciting sport,” Montana athletic director Kent Haslam says. “I think it’s going to be pretty popular here.”
The idea came about in 2010. Jean Gee, the senior associate athletic director who oversees all women’s sports, says the athletic department had been discussing adding a new sport, and the time seemed right.
Part of the motivation came from the desire for UM to be in compliance with Title IX, the portion of the 1972 Equal Opportunity Act that withholds federal funding from educational programs that don’t provide equal opportunities for participation in sports and activities.
The University found it was in compliance with Title IX, but in an effort to remain so, decided to add softball as a Division I sport.
“At first, we didn’t know what sport to add. We talked about softball, swimming, water polo – but we did a few surveys and our own research, and it seemed like softball would be the best fit for our community,” Gee says.
The surveys were given to incoming freshmen in 2010, and found that girls were 10 times more interested in softball than any other sport not offered at the time. Gee also found that softball was big in neighboring states, which is important considering where they could recruit players.
With softball chosen, the next task was getting the Montana Board of Regents – the body that oversees the Montana University System – to approve the plan, and finally, joining a league.
“Luckily for us, the [Big Sky] conference only needed one more school to receive an automatic qualifying bid into the NCAA tournament and be able to hold a conference championship,” Gee says.
“At the time, we were adding North Dakota and Southern Utah to the conference, and they already had softball, so it was a good time to be coming in.”
Tori Lettus was the first. The first player recruited for UM’s softball team, the first to verbally commit and the first to sign a national letter of intent, which she did last September.
The Grizzlies athletic department calls her and her fellow commits “The Original Six,” which Lettus thinks is pretty cool.
“It’s a big honor, being a part of this first group,” she says. “Knowing that everything we do – our first win, our first loss, our first home run – will go down in history? That’s sweet.”
But being first comes with responsibility. The first group sets the tone, atmosphere and reputation for the team for years to come.
There’s a lot of instability for a very young group. Most of the players are freshmen like Lettus, an idea almost unheard of apart from big-time men’s college basketball programs like the University of Kentucky.
This fall, players will not only have to navigate the already difficult terrain of being a student-athlete at a mid-major school, but they will have to do so without the benefit of older teammates who have been through it before.
“It’s scary, sure,” Lettus says. “But it’s exciting too, making history and all.”
Lettus, who is from Bothel, Wash., says she had offers from other schools around the Northwest, but the situation in Montana seemed too good to pass up. She visited campus on a cold day last year, when students were preparing for finals.
She was already familiar with Missoula – her older sister had gone to UM, and her aunt and uncle live here.
“I could see myself here. My high school coach was worried about me coming here, though. He said it would be safer if I went to an established program. But Coach Pinkerton convinced me. It was an easy decision to make.”
Pinkerton says the allure of starting a program from scratch has also proved attractive to potential recruits like Lettus. For athletes who are often out of the spotlight, playing at Montana is a rare opportunity.
“This isn’t a school like Oklahoma – softball isn’t going to be king. I hope we’ll have fans, and I think people will come watch, but I think more will come at first for the newness, and then wind up falling in love with the sport.”
The location UM chose for its new team is no stranger to controversy.
Known as UM South Campus, the site is home to the Dornblaser track and soccer complex, the UM Golf Course, open athletic fields and married-student housing.
Last fall, the UM administration considered expanding on the South Campus, planning to build classrooms and dorms to serve as a satellite campus, but decided against it, partly due to the public outcry that arose when it was announced the golf course would be taken down.
Now, it’s the location of the new softball complex.
“Finding a spot for the fields has been … interesting,” Haslam says. “Like the rest of this, it’s been a challenge, trying to find a spot that we can put everything, but also that won’t disrupt things like Campus Rec.”
The original plan was for the team to practice and play at a local high school’s field until their own facility was built, Haslam said. But to do that, UM had to apply for a special waiver from the NCAA, which was denied. The NCAA doesn’t allow collegiate coaches and teams to play at high school facilities because it could provide an unfair recruiting advantage.
So UM had to pull the trigger on plans to build its own complex.
“That was one of my concerns coming here,” Pinkerton says. “I’m from the South. I thought, ‘Dang! It’s gonna be cold up there! How are we going to play outside?'”
The plans sat on Haslam’s desk, sketched out on a laminated piece of paper. The field itself will face northwest, with a grandstand behind home plate and bleachers along the first and third baselines.
On opposite ends of left and right field will be the bullpens, where pitchers will warm up before entering the game. The infield and outfield playing surface will be artificial turf, the same type that’s in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
It’s under construction – the groundbreaking ceremony was held on July 31, and Haslam hopes it will be completed by the time Montana’s spring opener against Carroll College rolls around.
Shane St. Onge, a junior at the University of Montana, said he was concerned about where the field would be placed when he heard the news. St. Onge is a player and ASUM representative for the Jesters, UM’s club rugby team.
He says the original plans called for the field to be built on the north end of campus, on the fields next the Clark Fork River across from the Adams Center. That spot also happens to be where the Jesters hold their games.
“We are the oldest club sport on campus- we were founded in 1967- and we were ready to fight for our fields,” he says.
That location idea was scrapped, but St. Onge says he still isn’t pleased.
“Now that it’s on South Campus, we won’t have to find a new place for games, but its going to take away a lot of open space, and teams like us and the lacrosse team are going to have to fight for field time.”
Haslam said the loss of space on South Campus is unfortunate, but unavoidable, and that his department chose it because it would be the least disruptive and most accessible spot. All told, the complex will cost about $1 million to build.
“The Grizzly Scholarship Association gave us $200,000, but the rest has come from money we’ve generated privately, through fundraising and donations, to get this thing off the ground,” Haslam says.
That’s the initial cost for the field – but fielding a team every year will be a bit pricier. Ryan Martin is UM’s associate athletic director for business, and says the softball program will cost about $650,000 a year to operate.
“It fluctuates – different years there are going to be different costs, depending on the team’s schedule, among other factors,” Martin says. “Like this year – I have no idea how much this year will end up costing, because of all the costs associated with starting the program.”
Most of that money will go toward scholarships for players (about $250,000). This year, the Griz will have eight players on full scholarship, which will increase to 12 by 2016 when the program is more established.
But there are other expenses as well. Travel for Pinkerton and his staff has already cost a lot, as has securing field space for clinics and tryouts before the new stadium is built.
And then of course there’s the equipment. Bats, gloves, shoes, balls, cones, bases and bags to haul it all in – the list of things to buy on Pinkerton’s desk seemed endless.
“For a while, every couple of days we were looking at the list and it was twice as long as before,” he says. “It’s a pricey thing, to have a team and have that team be competitive.”
Pinkerton also hired another assistant coach, Allison Galvin, and the athletic media staff is paying $5,000 to an intern who will cover the team for its website gogriz.com next year (Kaimin reporter Sam Waldorf, who will not cover softball for the paper).
“There’s no question, it’ll be a little pricey,” Gee says.
Pinkerton’s office is cleaner now – for the most part. Stray papers still stick out of drawers and sticky notes surround his desktop monitor. But the boxes are gone. There are current team posters on the walls and the bottom of his desk is actually visible.
But that doesn’t mean the work is over.
Pinkerton has built the program from the ground up in a little less than a year.
Not to mention, he still has to get a young team, unfamiliar not only to college life but to DI athletics, ready to compete at a high level. After this weekend’s tournament in Billings, Montana will play a limited fall schedule before traveling to tournaments in February and eventually starting BSC play next March.
“We know it’s going to be a challenge,” Lettus says. “Nobody lured us here promising it would be easy. We’re still getting to know each other, adjusting to each other’s style of play.”
For Pinkerton, the most important thing is to hit the ground running. They’ll have some help – the fall tournaments, both taking place 12 miles outside of Missoula, feature NAIA and DII schools. But the struggle remains until the Griz finds out exactly what kind of team, and what kind of program it really is.
“When it starts up, our goal will be to establish ourselves,” Pinkerton says. “The rest will come.”
Shortly after the clinic last September, Dani Walker sat at her kitchen table doing English homework, but thinking about softball.
When Walker returned home from the clinic with Pinkerton about a year ago, she had a talk with her dad.
“I thought, ‘No way is he going to offer me a scholarship. No way am I going to Missoula next fall.'”
Walker’s dad, Kirk, played on the men’s basketball team at UM from 1994 to 1997, earning all-conference honors as a senior, the year after his first daughter was born.
“I told her, ‘Listen, you’re a good player, and he will be able to see that no matter what,'” Kirk says. “I had never even thought about her playing at Montana – but I could tell, once she had that idea in her head, it was something that she wasn’t going to quit on. I just wanted to make sure she was going to the right place for her.”
Dani thought she was getting passed over, but Pinkerton knew he had seen a talented player. Walker was quick behind the plate, and ran more like a fluid outfielder than many stocky catchers. Pinkerton says he could see her possibly moving somewhere else on the field, because her natural athleticism gives her an advantage when playing defense.
“She was catching for pitchers she had never caught before, which is really hard to do, because you have no chemistry and no sense of what their pitches look like, and she handled it really well,” he says.
Pinkerton saw Walker compete at a few more clinics and camps over the winter, and invited Walker to take an official visit. When she did, Kirk tagged along, and it was the former Griz showing around the current coach and the future Griz.
“He took us places even Jamie hadn’t been,” Walker says. “And when we passed by the old basketball team posters in the Adams Center, he pointed out which teams he was on.”
After the visit, Pinkerton made up his mind. If she wanted to, Dani Walker would be the first Montanan to commit to playing softball at the University of Montana.
“When I got offered the spot, I immediately said yes, and right after we talked, I just sat there and cried,” Walker says. “It didn’t even cross my mind that I was making history for the program – I was just so happy that I was going to be a Griz, like my dad.”