BELGRADE -- No Morgan Ray? No matter.

Frenchtown showed the Class A softball world Saturday what it has known all along: The Broncs are a program, not a one-trick pony.

Proof was on full display at the Belgrade Softball Complex, where Frenchtown dispatched Butte Central twice, 3-2 and then 6-2, to win its fourth consecutive state title -- and first since the departure of Ray, whose unparalleled talents are now at Ohio State. 

“We knew right away that everyone was talking like, ‘yeah, they lost her so they really don’t have a chance this year,'” said junior Allie Hochhalter, whose three-run homer to right-center field in the sixth inning won the opener and whose solo shot to left in the second inning of the second game quickly erased the shock of an early 2-0 deficit.

“That kind of makes it feel more sweet because, yeah, we did it.”

Emphasis on “we.” The Broncs have finished among the top three in Class A for 15 consecutive springs now.

Even so, this moment was extra special. So much so that coach Eli Field couldn’t avoid getting a little misty-eyed behind his dark sunglasses as he watched his girls hug, shriek and pose for photos on the dirt infield.

“Boy, you know …,” Field said, his voice cracking before he gathered himself. “Nobody thought we could do this. Morgan graduates and this group of kids pulls it off four years in a row. That’s just unbelievable to me.”

Ray was a three-time Montana Gatorade Player of the Year winner who routinely tossed no-hitters and belted line drives. Waiting patiently behind her for those three years was a gifted pitcher in her own right, Laci Willett, who capably stepped into Ray’s cleats this spring and won twice Saturday, shutting out the Maroons over the final six innings after Corbyn Holm’s two-run first-inning homer.

Pressure?

“I think I put the most pressure on myself,” Willett said. “But it’s OK. It’s what you do. Morgan was an amazing pitcher, but being behind her made me want to be better and be like her. I feel like that helped me as a pitcher.”

Willett has had plenty of support. The Broncs fell behind 2-0 in both games, but their bats were too potent to remain silent long against Butte Central’s iron-armed pitcher, Teresa Piazzola, who pitched three games Saturday -- the two against Frenchtown sandwiched around a midday 3-2 loser-out win over third-place Belgrade.

The Broncs had stranded five runners in scoring position when Hochhalter came to the plate with two runners on in the sixth. Hochhalter, whose two-run double Friday against Lewistown had given Frenchtown its first two runs of the tournament, hit a blast that completely reversed the day’s course of events.

The loser, after all, would have to win four games Saturday for the crown. Hochhalter helped ensure a third Frenchtown-Butte Central showdown wouldn’t be necessary with her second homer, jump-starting the offense.

Frenchtown tied it 2-2 in the third on an RBI ground out by senior Brooke Yarnall, took the lead for good 3-2 in the fifth when Yarnall scored on a double by senior Shelby Shourds, and broke it open in the sixth when Yarnall and Shourds coaxed two-out bases-loaded walks off a tiring Piazzola. Pinch-hitter Carley Thompson tacked an exclamation mark the scoring with a solo homer to right in the top of the seventh to make it 6-2.

Willett then closed the deal, striking out the last two hitters.

“Adversity, heart … people don’t even know how injured and sick we were,” Field said. “I’m impressed, I’m proud. It’s just amazing and it’s just so fun to watch them celebrate like this. They performed when it mattered most. Did I know we were going to be here? No. Did I think we had a chance. Absolutely. These girls work so hard.”

As Field spoke, his players lingered on the field, as if not wanting the moment to end. Several hoisted the championship trophy over their heads and as they gathered for a team photo they raised four fingers to denote their title streak.

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“It’s really surreal,” Hochhalter said. “Last year I could’ve said the same thing. It takes a while to say, ‘yeah, that did happen.’ And it’s awesome to be able to experience this with my best friends. It’s awesome to be a part of a team that loves to play together.”

***

Belgrade 16, Columbia Falls 4

The Northwest's hope for two representatives in the state title game came to swift end Saturday morning, as Belgrade stomped Columbia Falls in five innings.

The Panthers hit three home runs in a 12-run first inning which set the tone in the loser-out game. Judy Taylor connected for a two-run shot for the first one of the innings. After five more runs were scored, Taylor hit another two-run jack, making it 9-2.

Two batters later Kindall Bethke hit a three-run dinger, making it 12-2, and the rout was on. All-in-all Belgrade hit five home runs in the game.

For Columbia Falls, KJ Schweikert, who had been so solid in the pitching circle, simply ran out of gas. After recording three wins and two complete games to keep the Kats alive on Friday, Schweikert was unable to make it out of the first inning. 

Columbia Falls countered with doubles from Samantha Collins and Lottie Ellis, but Belgrade, who wound up with the bronze trophy, was just too much.

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