Missoula is the place to be this weekend for softball fans as over 80 teams are in town for the ASA state softball tournament. Three of the five age groups started play Friday with the older 16U and 18U brackets getting play underway Saturday morning.
This year's 18U Missoula Avalanche is one of the most talented ASA softball teams to come out of Montana. Four members of the roster have already committed to college softball programs and this summer the team has qualified for nationals at two separate tournaments.
"This is definitely one of the top teams I've played for," said Hellgate Knights graduate Katie Waletzko, who will try to walk-on with the Griz softball team this fall. "You work for your spot. There's no goofing around; If you want to play you better work hard."
There's no question the Avalanche will be the team to beat in their 18U bracket at the state tournament, being held this weekend in Missoula.
"A lot of girls on our team have never won state in high school or anything," said two time state A champion and Gatorade Player of the Year Morgan Ray of Frenchtown. "We're really excited because they want to win state just before they go to college and they're really excited so we're just going to play our hardest and hopefully we can get a state championship."
Meanwhile in the 16U bracket this weekend, another Missoula area team comes in as a major contender for the title. The Bitterroot Sparks have had a great travel season. They placed sixth out of 64 teams in Oregon earlier this summer and won their tournament in Couer D'Alene. But despite their regional success, winning a state championship is all that's on their minds this week.
"It's definitely high stakes," explained Ali Williams who will be a junior at Kalispell Glacier in the fall. "Everybody wants to win and it's just so much fun getting to play in that tournament."
"We took second last year and we should have won," said Missoula Big Sky junior Morgan Johnson of her Sparks team last summer. "We're coming back this year and we're taking it... we want it."
Adding fuel to the Sparks is the fact that five members of this squad were sophomore this past spring on Missoula Big Sky. Those athletes are trying to wash the taste out of their mouths from the spring season when they came so close to winning a high school state title, only to have Billings West take it away on a bizarre walk-off strikeout finish.
"We want it so bad," said Big Sky junior Kendall Mooney. "The game at high school state wasn't us, it was just a crazy ending."
"Well we know what that felt like and we don't want to go back," explained Johnson. "We were there and we were one out away, we should have just... oh well, we'll come back this year and get it."
Both the Sparks and Avalanche say getting to play state in Missoula this weekend is a huge relief after traveling all over the Western United states for their other tournaments.
"Well it's nice because it's so close," said Williams. "Missoula isn't anything compared to what we've been traveling so it's definitely nice to have it here."
"It will be good to come back home and have our own fans here to be able to watch us," said Ray. "It will be cool to have a big tournament here."
The 10U, 12U and 14U brackets all started up tournament play on Friday in Missoula. The 16U and 18U brackets will begin play early Saturday morning, with the state title games scheduled for 4:00 Sunday afternoon.