POLSON — On a recent afternoon, as a softball game played in the background, Larry Smith was right at home, inside a dugout. Neatly manicured fields surrounded him, the same fields that will host the Class A state tournament at the end of this month and the same fields that have produced some of the best teams Montana has ever seen.
Not long ago, these fields were nowhere to be found, and neither was fastpitch softball.
When the state of Montana sanctioned the sport as a high school girls event in 1986, Smith, then an engineer at Kerr Dam, came aboard as an assistant to help build the upstart program. After two years of Polson competing against only Class AA schools, he was the lone candidate to emerge interested in taking over as head coach of the winless program.
“It was tough convincing the mothers to let their daughters play fastpitch softball,” Smith said. “And of course, most of the males in the community said, ‘They can’t play fastpitch.’ It was a tough go at first but I finally got a group together.”
He calls them “the pioneers” and the entire bunch made believers out of this town and the whole state.
In the course of his 27-year coaching career, Larry Smith, 72, has seen the Polson fastpitch team develop into one of Montana’s premier programs for any classification.
The Lady Pirates have won seven state championships, all since 2001. Since 2007, the girls have amassed a 156-33 record and produced several high-caliber players, including Riley Kenney, who is trying out for the University of Montana’s new team, and Shay Duford, a star prep player who competes at Spokane Community College.
The city of Polson now boasts a top-notch four-field complex and a robust youth program that offers four ASA summer teams.
Generations of Polson players have picked up the sport and excelled, including this latest squad that is off to an 8-2 overall start and will most likely enjoy homefield advantage at the upcoming state tournament, May 29-31.
Behind it all is one unifying and indistinguishable factor.
Since becoming the team’s head coach in 1988, Smith has accrued an overall record of 520-196 as of April 28. He has won regional coach of the year honors twice. This spring he’s been selected as a finalist for national high school coach of the year for the National High School Athletic Coaches Association.
“It’s been a long haul but well worth it,” Smith said.
Smith grew up in Dixon, playing baseball.
It was his favorite sport all through his teenage years and into college at Havre, which still had a team in the late 1960s.
It was during those college years when he also discovered the sport of fastpitch softball. Some friends in the dormitory asked him to fill in the roster one night. He did, and loved it.
After college when he moved to Missoula to work at the paper mill, baseball was no longer an option but fastpitch was. He organized an adult team and played regularly through spring and summer. He jumped at the opportunity to move to Polson in 1978 and got a job as an operating engineer for the Montana Power Company at Kerr Dam. A year later he decided to start his own construction company, now called Smith Paving and Contracting, which he still owns and operates with his son, Derek.
At the time, only adults played fastpitch softball and it certainly wasn’t a sport for high school girls; instead they played slowpitch.
One summer night Smith’s daughter Robin and her friends came home after a game that their team had lost pretty bad.
“They asked me if I could help them out. That’s what got me started coaching girls softball that summer,” he said. “I just stayed with it.”
In 1986, the state made a daring move and established the sport of fastpitch softball at the high school ranks. Polson decided to start a program. Garth Cox was named the first head coach of the team and Smith joined as an assistant.
But gathering players proved challenging, and competing as the only Class A squad in a field of Class AA teams was difficult.
The team went winless the first two seasons and Cox resigned. Not ready to give up on the program, Smith applied for the position.
He remembers the struggle of trying to convince athletes to play fastpitch, especially for a losing program. But he found a core group who seemed brave enough to try.
“All of a sudden the girls started playing and they loved it and then all the girls wanted to play fastpitch,” he said.
Smith went to work, preaching a rapid, athletic style of play that followed the pace of baseball instead of the slower crawl of slowpitch.
The Lady Pirates went 13-11 in Smith’s first season at the helm.
By 1997, Polson was playing for a Class A state championship. The girls lost to Butte Central that year but it reflected the early inklings of a dynasty.
“Like I tell the girls every year, those were the pioneers,” Smith said, describing his early teams. “Those were the ones you want to give thanks to, because they took it on the chin for a few years so you girls could have what you got today.”
In 2001, Polson hosted the state championship tournament at its new softball complex. In a remarkable weekend of action, the girls rallied through the loser’s bracket and stunned undefeated Laurel 5-2 in the first championship game and then 2-1 to win the program’s first title.
A year later, they won again at home. Then again in 2004, 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Last year’s team barely lost to another dynastic program, Frenchtown, in the state title game.
This spring Polson is a state contender yet again.
Even though it’s become common for fans to see the Lady Pirates battling for the trophy, it can still astonish the team’s chief architect to look back at how far the program has come.
“It’s amazing how the girls progressed. The transformation from what they were to what they are now, it’s just amazing to me,” Smith said. “I still smile about it.”
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