MISSOULA — There have been plenty of firsts already for the Montana softball program, and there will continue to be many more as the Grizzlies play their inaugural season in 2014-15, but there might not be a more special designation than this: First Montanan to sign with the Grizzlies.
That honor goes to Deer Lodge’s Dani Walker, who was one of five high school seniors who signed National Letters of Intent last week to join the six players who signed in November. And it’s hard to argue that Walker is the most fitting.
She wasn’t born under the sign of the grizzly, but she was born to a Grizzly. Her father, Kirk, who was All-Big Sky Conference as a senior starter on an NCAA tournament team, was in his junior year in the Montana men’s basketball program when the first of his and Jody Walker’s three children was born.
“Everyone around here knows the Grizzlies, so they’ve given me so much support,” Walker said. “I feel like a mini-celebrity. Even my dad told me the other day that he did some neat things while he was at Montana, but I’ll always be able to say I was the first Montana player in the softball program.”
Also signing NLIs last week were Lexie Brenneis, a catcher from Ladner, B.C.; Mackenzie Kutzke, an outfielder from Los Alamitos, Calif.; McKenzie Phillips, a centerfielder from Riverside, Calif.; and Madison Saacke, a catcher/infielder from Los Alamitos, Calif.
But it was his first Montanan that Griz softball coach Jamie Pinkerton wanted to get just right.
“When Dani was on her visit, you could just tell this is what she wanted. It’s ingrained in her and part of her DNA,” he said. “I certainly didn’t have to sit and explain Griz tradition to her. In fact, she taught me a few things.
“While I’m excited she’s a Montanan, I’m also excited that she can play.”
Walker, who competes for the Montana Avalanche club softball program, is a three-sport standout at Powell County High. In addition to being a three-time all-state softball selection, she was also an all-state basketball and all-conference volleyball player for the Wardens.
She batted .473 last season for Powell County and .438 while playing for the Avalanche.
“I wouldn’t have signed Dani if she didn’t do this on her own merit,” Pinkerton said. “She’s a catcher, and you always want to have depth at that position, but she has the athleticism to play other positions as well.
“I like her bat speed, and she has an above-average arm. And she runs well. She doesn’t run like a catcher.”
Three of the five players Pinkerton signed last week are from Southern California. Kutzke and Saacke are both seniors at Los Alamitos High, while Phillips is a senior at Martin Luther King High. Kutzke plays club for SoCal Wicked, Saacke for Strike Force, Phillips for Firecrackers-Snyder.
It’s an area that Pinkerton will recruit annually, for much the same reason Griz soccer coach Mark Plakorus targets the same region.
“It’s one of the areas in the country that everyone recruits, along with south Texas, Arizona and Florida,” Pinkerton said. “They are not necessarily better athletes, but they play all year round. They are playing 100-plus games per year when players in other states might be lucky to get half that.
“There is a big pool of players to draw from and a lot of softball being played. That’s why we hit that area pretty hard.”
Saacke, like Walker and Brenneis, is a catcher, but she also plays second or third base. That defensive versatility is a characteristic of most of Pinkerton’s first 11 signees.
“Madison is a good defensive catcher with a good arm, but she also plays second or third base, so we’ll be able to plug her in if we have injuries or a shortage of middle infielders,” he said. “She swings a decent bat, so she’ll be middle of the order.”
Phillips is a slap-hitting centerfielder with tremendous speed, much like November signee MaKenna McGill. In fact, this should be a must-see requirement for next fall’s first practice: a race from home to first between Phillips, who’s been timed at 2.7 seconds over the 60 feet, and McGill.
“Now I have two legit centerfielders,” Pinkerton said. “I’m excited because both of them are good defensively. They’ll have the fall to battle for the position.
“McKenzie is a top-of-the-lineup contact hitter with above-average speed, so she is going to be able to steal bases for us as well.”
Gabby Martinez, a November signee who also hails from Southern California, is a left-handed slap hitter who plays second base or the outfield.
“That gives us three speed players in the lineup,” Pinkerton said. “They’ll hit 9-1-2 and set the table for the middle of the order.
“This might be one of my first outfields where I have three players who really run well. We’re going to be able to cover some ground with these outfielders.”
Kutzke is a corner outfielder with, according to Pinkerton, an above-average arm and decent speed. She is a right-handed, middle-of-the-order hitter.
“When I was watching Mackenzie’s games, she always seemed to be in the right spot,” Pinkerton said. “She is softball savvy. She just knows where she needs to be.
“She also doesn’t get herself out at the plate. In her games that I watched, she was a tough out.”
Brenneis, a two-time provincial champion and one-time Canadian national champion, gives Pinkerton his third catcher, a buildup that was by design.
“I’ll always have multiple catchers, because at that position you’re always just a foul tip away from being out,” he said. “On my teams you’ll always see depth at pitcher and catcher. Then hopefully those players have the type of versatility that allows you to move them around, and these three catchers have that.”
In addition to catcher, Brenneis can also play first or third base and is a middle-of-the-order hitter.
“Lexie has a strong arm and throws downhill from behind the plate, so she can deter the running game of the other team. That’s what attracted me to her,” Pinkerton said.
“And of the bunch, she probably has the most raw power. She has a good swing and is going to drive runs in. When she gets some experience, she’ll have the ability to hit 8 to 12 homers a year.”
With seven to nine roster spots still to fill, Pinkerton and assistant coach Melanie Meuchel will now narrow their recruiting focus to junior college players who can help balance the roster and provide a splash of experience, and Montana high schoolers.
“I feel like we have the start to a pretty good class for as late as we got going,” Pinkerton said. “Bundle the two groups of signees together and we’ve got every position covered. Pitcher is still a work in progress, but most of the kids we now have can play multiple positions.
“I feel we have speed, we have some power, and we have good defensive abilities. We’re certainly not going to be one-dimensional.”
The signing period for softball extends through Aug. 1.
What the newest Grizzlies are saying about Montana:
Brenneis: “I believe the University of Montana is a great opportunity. When I went for my visit I could tell the school beams with school pride, with what seemed like the whole student body showing up to each athletic event. That’s the kind of support and atmosphere I would love to be in as an athlete, so that really motivated my decision.
“Montana also specializes in what I plan on pursuing as a career: journalism. I could see the success of the program just by having the privilege of walking through the journalism building.
“But perhaps the most important reason that I selected Montana is I am able to get the full-on experience of playing softball in the USA at a high level of competition, while staying moderately close to my family and loved ones at the same time. They mean the world to me, and I couldn’t chase this opportunity without them and all of their support.”
Kutzke: “I picked the University of Montana for several reasons. Academics: Montana has an exceptional psychology department that will allow me to pursue a career in that field. Athletics: I am excited to wear No. 11 for the first Griz softball team, and Coach Pink and Coach Meuchel have really made a strong family environment that made me feel good about where I’ll be spending the next four years. Location: I wanted to go to college out of state, and Montana is beautiful and not too far from home.”
Phillips: “A big reason I am going to the University of Montana is because of the coaches. Coach Pinkerton and Coach Meuchel made me feel so welcomed and at home on my official visit to the campus and city. I had heard of both of them from their years at other colleges and heard nothing but great things.
“Not only is Montana beautiful, but the environment and the people were just so incredible that I didn’t want to go back home. I completely fell in love with the city, the campus and the school spirit when I attended a basketball game. I just can’t wait to be a part of the first-ever softball team at UM and officially be a Griz!”
Saacke: “While I was walking around campus on my official visit, I knew that I could see myself at Montana for the next four years. I love the outdoors and the fact that it is going to be a totally different experience than California. Being a part of the inaugural Griz softball team makes it even more exciting. I am really looking forward to playing for Coach Pinkerton and Coach Meuchel and can’t wait to meet my new teammates!”
Walker: “I’ve grown up in a very competitive family, which at times was tough, but I’m sure glad I did. Both of my parents played college ball, and I wanted to also. I have also grown up a Griz fan, and I have always wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps.
“I have been playing softball since I was 5. In a small town you can be a three-sport athlete, and I enjoyed volleyball and basketball very much, but my love has always been softball. When I was a freshman in high school, we started hearing of plans for a softball program at Montana that would begin my year of graduation. My goals were set, and I knew that was where I wanted to go to college and play softball.”
— Montana Sports Information