Dave Kehr has coached the Columbia Falls High School softball team for 10 years, nine as head coach. In that time, the Wildkats have never beaten Polson, the most successful program in Class A over that span. Not once in a decade.
But the Wildkats have gotten close and many of their recent teams have been quite good – state tournament good. And this year, so far, the undefeated Wildkats are very good. Maybe Polson-beating good. How about state championship good?
“We could definitely do it,” senior shortstop Renae Nelson said of the state title. “Everyone believes in the team. Our potential this year is phenomenal. Everyone has a spark.”
The Wildkats are in first place in the Northwestern A conference, boasting a perfect 6-0 record, including 3-0 in league games. Not only have they been winning, the Wildkats have been thoroughly devastating opponents. They have scored double-digit runs every game except for a victory over Glacier when they scored nine.
“It’s just been a really good start to the season, honestly,” Kehr said. “We’ve been hitting very well. Everybody’s hitting.”
With the offense churning out so many runs, it takes a little pressure off the defense and pitching. The result has been strong performances everywhere: on the mound, in the field and at the plate.
“It’s easier to play defense with a lead,” Kehr said.
The Columbia Falls players will get a chance to see if they’re up to the task of beating Polson at their next game on April 28. The game starts at 6 p.m. in Polson. The Pirates are also undefeated in the conference at 2-0, including a 46-0 drumming over Whitefish that featured a 20-run fourth inning. They are 4-2 overall.
Polson has won five state championships since 2001, the most by any team in Class A. This year, they have lost games to Belgrade and Frenchtown, another perennial power. Frenchtown will be joining Northwestern A next year to give the conference two of the most formidable programs in the state.
Columbia Falls has additional motivation this spring because of last year’s failure to reach the state tournament after two straight trips. Nelson is intent on not allowing that to happen again.
“It was a letdown,” she said. “It shows that even with the best talent it comes down to how much you want it.”
The Wildkats certainly want it this year and it’s showing on the field. Kehr said every player in his lineup is producing. The speedy, top-of-the-order hitters are getting on base and the power sluggers are driving them home when they are expected to.
Junior Shaun Rowe, who was named all-state at third base as a sophomore and also pitches, has been outscoring some teams by herself. Kehr said Rowe has hit three home runs this year, including two grand slams.
In Columbia Falls’ most recent game, an 11-7 victory over Libby on April 21, Rowe went 3-for-5 with three RBIs and earned the win on the mound.
Nelson said the team is a tight-knit group, which has been key to the early-season success. Because of their closeness, the players’ on-field communication is strong, Nelson said.
“The chemistry is amazing,” she said.
There is a lot of regular season left to be played, but you can bet the Wildkats have the state tournament circled on their calendars: May 26-28 in Miles City.
“I have no doubt we can make it to the state championship,” senior centerfielder Tessa Cowan said. “Just the way we all get along together and the way we’re playing, I can see us in the state championship for sure.”
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