BELGRADE — The Columbia Falls softball team earned its first state championship in program history with an 8-2 win over Billings Central on a rain-soaked Saturday.
The top-seeded Wildkats (24-3) won all four of their games at the Class A state tournament this weekend. They edged third-seeded Laurel 6-4 in the undefeated final earlier in the day, began the tournament with a 16-3 win over fifth-seeded Hamilton and won a 4-3 thriller over second-seeded Central on Friday night.
Central (20-3) had to win three games Saturday to set up a rematch.
Columbia Falls 8, Billings Central 2, championship
The Wildkats were one strike away from earning their first state championship in program history. They had to wait several minutes to throw the potential title-clinching pitch. The reason, fittingly, was water.
Columbia Falls and Billings Central had been through thunderstorm delays throughout the Class A state tournament this weekend at the Belgrade Softball Complex. They got through their first games of Saturday unscathed, but another storm full of rain and hail flooded large chunks of the fields.
The tournament relocated to Bozeman Gallatin, where more lightning caused another pause in the second inning. Not long after the game resumed, another heavy rainstorm saturated the field.
Columbia Falls poured it on too, scoring five straight runs to build an 8-2 lead going into the seventh.
With two outs and two strikes, several sprinklers went off in the outfield.
“It was so funny,” said Columbia Falls senior Syd Mann. “With the rain delays and all the craziness in the game, of course the sprinklers had to add to it.
“But we were excited. We just wanted to keep going, keep rolling, and that’s exactly what we did.”
The short interruption gave the Wildkats more time to process what they were about to accomplish. A program that had never reached a state title game before this season looked like seasoned veterans this weekend.
“Perseverance. That’s what the kids did,” said Columbia Falls coach Dave Kehr. “What didn’t we have? Thunder, lightning, hail, sprinklers. What a great job they did.”
Mann, a Nicholls State signee, said a state title first started to feel real after Friday’s win over Central. Columbia Falls faced more tense moments in the championship game.
The Wildkats scored three runs in the top of the first inning, highlighted by a two-run home run from Mann, whose father Jesse is an assistant coach and sister Bella is a freshman at Columbia Falls.
“To get that home run and kind of get the team up and going, it was so exciting,” Syd Mann said.
The Rams responded with one in the bottom of the first and another in the third. They put runners on first and third base with one out and loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth. Columbia Falls escaped the jam, then scored three runs in the fifth to go up 6-2.
“They just don’t give up,” Kehr said. “Somebody’s coming through all the time. If it’s not the sixth and seventh batters, then it’s the nine and one batters. All the way through the lineup, they just keep coming back at you.”
Demye Rensel and Aspen Dawson, one of four seniors on the Wildkats, hit back to back homers in the sixth to extend the lead to its final margin.
It’s the second straight runner-up finish at state for the Rams, who lost to Frenchtown last season, but coach Coleman Rockwell was pleased with his team all weekend. He’s also optimistic about the future. Brooke Thompson was the only senior on this year’s roster, and Central only had two juniors (nine sophomores, one freshman).
“Maybe I should feel let down, but I don’t,” Rockwell said. “We played three really tough games today and got back to the chipper. Couldn’t be more proud. They played phenomenal all day against three really good teams. Columbia Falls, they’re a really good team.”
Mann, Dawson, Maddy Collins and Kyrah Trenkle will forever be the first group of seniors to earn a state softball championship at Columbia Falls.
“This team has been a family the last four years, and I knew this was a team that could get it done,” Mann said. “It’s so exciting to be Columbia Falls’ first ever state champion.”
Kehr is in his 26th season as Columbia Falls’ coach. He was forced to sit through multiple storms and a sprinkler delay to finally get that title taste.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said.
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