The 2020 Class AA state softball tournament kicked off at the Kidsport Complex in Kalispell on Thursday, and the teams from east of the continental divide wasted no time proving they might be the superior half of the state this year.
In the afternoon games, Billings Senior used a hot start, scoring seven runs in the first two innings to build a 7-0 lead against Kalispell Glacier and from there, the Broncs never looked back in an 8-4 win.
Kennedy Venner was outstanding in the circle for the Broncs. She held Glacier to four hits and four runs in a complete-game victory that included seven strikeouts. Dacee Zent led Senior with three hits and three RBI; Darby Mayo added two hits and two RBI.
“It’s a pretty big win and I’m pretty happy about it,” Venner told 406mtsports.com. “We came in as a lower seed and we didn’t have as much of a target on us and it just feels good to come and beat a higher-seeded team.”
As for how she was able to stymie Glacier, one of the best hitting lineups in the state?
“I knew I just had to keep getting stronger, inning by inning,” she said. “Then, it’s just about trusting my defense and letting them work.”
Kynzie Mohl started the game for Glacier but the future Grizzly softball player was given the loss on the mound. She did hit her 17th home run of the season, in the loss, which followed an inside-the-park home run from Kenna Vanorny.
Glacier will face Helena High today at noon.
Elsewhere on the fields, Billings West, Belgrade and Great Falls came away with wins.
Great Falls 14, Sentinel 8
Heading into the Class AA state softball tournament, some people might have forgotten that Great Falls High is the defending champion.
But after Ryen Palmer hit a home run on the first at-bat of the tournament, and the Bison hit eight more as a team for nine total, the No. 4 seed out the Eastern AA reminded everyone it’s not ready to give up its title just yet, thanks to a dominating 14-8 win over Missoula Sentinel, the Western AA champion on Thursday.
“A lot people were kind of looking past us as a four seed,” Palmer said. “But we are still right here and it feels great to go out and show people that.”
Palmer’s homer was her first of two on the day and the first of seven for Great Falls High, which broke the game open with three consecutive home runs in the top of the fourth, making the score 8-2.
In addition to Palmer’s two home runs, Stephanie Jablonski also hit two for the Bison. Morgan Sunchild also added two home runs, as well as getting the win on the mound.
“It was a home run derby,” Palmer said. “It was crazy in the dugout.”
On the Sentinel side of things, Montana softball signee Grace Hardy hit two home runs and down 14-4 in the seventh, the Spartans plated four runs to make things interesting, but in the end, the deficit was too much to overcome.
“It was a fun day to watch,” Great Falls head coach Don Meierhoff said. “We are just learning every day and our entire goal is to peak at the right time.”
Belgrade 3, Helena Capital 2
The Belgrade Panthers are certainly familiar with winning state tournament softball games. But Thursday in Kalispell, the Panthers did something they hadn’t before, winning their first-ever game in the AA state tournament.
Belgrade is still technically the defending Class A champion after winning in 2019, but following a 3-2 win over Helena Capital, the Panthers advanced into the winner’s side of the bracket.
“The first win is always huge and this first one feels really good,” Belgrade head coach Joey Roberts said. “We have never been here to the AA state tournament but some of our younger girls had played at state, so it wasn’t a new experience.”
Capital struck first as Nyeala Herndon gave the Bruins a 1-0 lead with a home run in the second inning. The score stayed that way until Belgrade scored twice in the fourth and took the lead.
In the top of the sixth, Taylor Sayers tied the score on an RBI single for CHS, making it 2-2 heading to the seventh.
But Arin Eaton, who started the game on the mound for Belgrade, doubled into center and scored on a sacrifice by Shaylis Osler, who also helped hold the lead with a few impressive snags at first base.
“It’s super exciting,” Osler said. “We came in here ready to go. We were a little affected when they tied it. But we got right back on top and we were ready to go. That’s just how we have to play, no matter what.”
Billings West 9, Helena High 4
Just like its Eastern AA counterpart Great Falls, fourth-seeded Helena High was aiming for an upset of Billings West, the top seed from the Eastern AA and for a few innings, it looked like Helena might pull it off.
Reegan Walsh drove in a run in the first inning for the Bengals, then with the scored tied 1-1 in the top of the fourth, Ashlyn Lamping brought home Faith Manibusan on a sacrifice, putting Helena in front 2-1.
Yet the lead didn’t last long. West responded with five runs in the bottom half of the fourth inning, which included a two-run home run from Marleigh Nieto, which was the first of back-to-back shots for the Golden Bears, who went on to win 9-4.
“Getting this first win is big,” West head coach Preston Sanders said. “Hopefully, it will set the tone for tomorrow. It was kind of iffy there for a while though. I just needed to calm them down. They were playing so tight.”
West has seven seniors and after taking third at state back in 2019, the Bears are thinking big, but also, wanting to make up for missed chances in 2020.
“We have seven seniors and they know it’s getting towards the end,” Sanders said. “Some of them felt like they were cheated, because we took third the year before and we were looking forward to last season so much. So I think there were a lot of nerves but it got better as the game went on.”
Ashley Wik hit the second home run in the fourth for West. She added two hits and an RBI. Chloe Nelson led all hitters in the game with four. She also notched two doubles and two RBI for West.
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