Polson likes doing it the hard way at the Class A softball tournament. It’s become a tradition. First, the Pirates give other teams a head start, and then they rattle off a half-dozen wins in the tournament’s final two days to get out of the consolation bracket and claim the title. That’s how they won their first two titles and that’s how they claimed their most recent in 2007.
The Pirates, the most successful softball program in Class A over the last decade, always seem to provide excitement at the state tournament, except maybe for 2004, when they ran over four straight opponents en route to the title.
“That was the only time they walked through it,” head coach Larry Smith said. “That was a different feeling. It felt like it was almost boring.”
Boring can be fine, but the Pirates thrive in the role of comeback kids. And once again this season, softball observers are all but expecting the Pirates to be there when the championship game rolls around.
Polson won state championships in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2007. In 2001, the Pirates lost their second game of the tournament and were faced with this daunting task: In order to win the title, they had to win seven straight games in two days.
A seven-game win streak in the regular season, spread out over a couple of weeks, is difficult enough. But at the state tourney against the best of the best, in a weekend, it’s downright improbable. Apparently the Pirates weren’t interested in probability equations, though. They had the depth, the mettle and, by the end of the weekend, they had the Class A title.
The next year, Polson lost its opener and then won seven straight games again to claim its second consecutive title. So it’s understandable if Smith didn’t quite know how to pinpoint his emotions after the Pirates waltzed through the 2004 tourney with four straight victories. Something was missing.
But in 2007, the Pirates gave Smith what he was used to: a cardiac rollercoaster. Again, the Pirates lost early and then ended up having to beat fellow powerhouse Frenchtown twice, including a nail-biter in the championship game. In that game, Polson was facing a one-run deficit with two outs in the bottom of the final inning before rallying to win.
Smith said this year’s Pirates remind him a lot of the 2007 squad. The players, Smith said, have great attitudes, good family support, are thoroughly team-oriented and are “very athletic.” The Pirates are 3-0 (1-0 conference) this year and favored to win the Northwestern A conference.
“They’ve played a lot together and they cover each other’s back,” Smith said. “They know what their teammates are going to do.”
The only senior on the team is Staci Benson, a veteran and star from the 2007 team. She was a freshman on that team, carrying the nickname “The Rookie.” She had a key hit in the seventh-inning rally of the title victory.
Benson is a do-everything shortstop and the team’s leader. She’s a “pure switch hitter” who can slap hit, bunt or hit for power effectively, Smith said. Benson is “a quiet kid, but she leads by model.” She asks to be listed at 5 feet, but Smith said that’s asking too much.
“We might be able to stretch her to 4-11,” Smith said. “She’s small in stature but she has the biggest heart out there on the field. It’s just unbelievable sometimes. She’s a dandy.”
As usual, the Pirates are talented from top to bottom, a consistency that Smith attributes to Polson’s youth league, which Smith started in the 1990s. The league is run by volunteers, or, more precisely, “a bunch of parents making it work with local kids.” Smith used to get freshmen girls who didn’t know how to catch or throw. Now he gets switch-hitting experts who comfortably play multiple positions.
Among those talented players are the Duford sisters, freshman Shay and junior Kayla. Shay is the team’s top pitcher and Kayla is the catcher, giving the Pirates a sisterly synchronicity between the mound and home plate.
“They don’t get along at home, but they get along out there,” Smith joked.
What might separate these Pirates from the rest of the field, Smith said, is their sheer natural athleticism.
“They’re just basically good overall athletes,” Smith said.
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