Every season Polson High School softball enters its way into the Montana High School Association Class A championship conversation, and this year, under the direction of new Lady Pirate head coach Jamie Hanson, it has been no exception.
The Lady Pirates, now boast of a relatively young roster, have already showcased big-game experience, and now they hope to bring yet another MHSA Class A championship title home.
This year, for the Polson, is different, it’s the first season without legendary Lady Pirates’ head coach Larry Smith, and they Polson will prepare to host the MHSA State Championship softball tournament May 23-25 at the Polson Softball Complex.
Gone is legendary Lady Pirates coach Larry Smith, and some of the familiar names of the star-studded Polson softball roster over the past few seasons, such as Hannah Fryberger, Quinn Motichka and Kaelyn Smith.
Yet, somehow Hansen, who had a successful formula as the former Mission Valley Mariners’ head coach for nearly two decades, has taken his philosophical approach that made him successful in baseball, and applied it to a talented-packed lineup that boasts of collection of players that maybe young, but only in years, not experience.
Enter the new generation of Lady Pirates stars, who are looking to make a historical exclamation point to their season, with new faces, the results have stayed relatively the same, primarily because the Lady Pirates’ system that Larry Smith built 30 years ago, has allowed players to be ready, and have game experience when they enter the high school ranks.
Enter new names like Gracie Quinones, Paige Noyes, Lisa Costilla, Josie Caye, Katelyne Druyvestein, and Lauren Vergeront, who all make up a revamped Lady Pirates defense, an offense that is a threat to any pitcher they face.
Polson, who has a bye in the first-round might be coming up on an interesting scenario, that would have seemed improbable only a short week ago.
The Lady Pirates will also not be the only Mission Valley tournament team participating in state. They have company in the form of their rival, the Ronan Maidens, who qualified for the MHSA state tournament, after winning a tie-breaker, in their final game of the season with a 12-0 victory over Browning.
In the Pirates final game of the season, they knocked off Libby.
The Lady Pirates continued to dominate NWA teams with a strong hitting performance at Libby. Polso totaled 16 runs and banged out 4 home runs in the win. Josie Caye, Lexi Orien, Kobbey Smith, and Lisa Costilla all went yard. Page “Doubles” Noyes, Orien, and SaVanna Carpentier provided extra punch each with a double.
Lauren Vergeront and Katelyn Druyvestein led the Pirates to the win from the circle.
Taylor Holmes was the big gun from Libby with a triple and a double and three RBIs.
The Pirates head into state in Polson this coming week with a 7-1 conference record (17-4 overall) and NWA championship under their belt.
They receive a bye at state and will play their first game against the winner of the 11:00AM Lewistown/MilesCity game at 3 P.M. on Field 1 Thursday at the Lady Pirate Softball Complex.
The Lady Pirates, could potentially face one of their biggest rivals Ronan, if the two teams would both win their second-round matches. The Maidens, who qualified at the last minute, with a 12-0 victory over Browning, to earn the tie-breaker, will face Hamilton, the No. 2 seed out of the Southeast, at 11 a.m. Thursday at Polson Softball Complex.
Ronan is considered a Cinderella team of sorts because they didn’t know if they had a shot at qualifying for the tournament until the final game of the season, is one of the most dangerous teams that no one wants to face.
Top-to-bottom of their order, the Maidens are loaded with dangerous hitters, who are capable of manufacturing runs in bunches.
A scary stat for the opposition, in all seven of the Maiden’s victories, they have manufactured runs in double-digit numbers.
The Maidens, led under the direction of first-year head coach Kaylee Cheff, boast of some of the most dangerous.
Ronan boasts of top-hitters such as Emilie Corley, Madison Clairmont, and Regan Clairmont, who are all home run threats, plus the versatile talents of their pitcher Macao Jackson, make them a dangerous combination if this team gets going, case in point, no one will want to face them if they are batting well.
The House that Larry built
When most people think of the name “Larry Legend,” they associated it with former Boston Celtic great Larry Bird, unless they live in the Mission Valley.
The Mission Valley associates “Larry Legend,” by a different name: Polson Pirates softball coach Larry Smith.
Last year, Smith teetered back-and-forth all of the previous seasons pondering whether or not to retire.
Smith, who announced his decision, last summer, to his softball team the Purple Rain, decided to admit the choice to move on from a program he had been a part of starting as the Pirates’ assistant coach in 1986, and Polson’s head softball coach in 1988, never got easy, as he wrestled with the decision from the spring till summer.
“I don’t think there was ever a good moment (to decide to retire),” Smith said. “I never had a good feeling about it, and I think (last summer) was a good time to do it.”
Recognizing his team was loaded with a lot of talent, Smith decided to find his successor, a decision that he admits was never easy to make after being at the helm and is one of the main contributors towards building the Polson softball program into a powerhouse.
“I think (retiring) was a good time to do it,” Smith admitted. “We had a lot of solid (players) and great young talent, and whoever was going to step in, would be a rather easy adjustment for them. They could step right in and keep the program rolling.”
Smith, who had plenty of influence in deciding who would replace him, choose former Mission Valley Mariner’s coach Jamie Hanson to replace him.
“There are some mixed emotions, and it was hard to let it go,” Smith admitted. “I struggled with that part of it and the success of the program, and in the past I know what Jamie is capable of doing, and it was a tough decision to turn it loose., and I have a lot invested in the program, and huge finances building the complex, and the program. It was hard to decide one way or another, and I decided ‘let’s do it now,’ because it is a good time, and it’ll be a smoother adjustment for the new person to take over.”
Though Smith was wrestling with a significant decision throughout the entire spring, and summer season, it didn’t phase him, as he continued to do what has for the past 33 seasons: coach.
“I tried not to even think about (the decision to retire),” Smith said. “I wasn’t about me, it was about the program, and the players, and I had such a good bunch of student-athletes to work without distractions, and I just stayed committed to coaching, and kept on rolling.”
Smith, who was one of the driving forces, towards creating an 8U through 18U softball program, knew years ago, it would be a necessity if Polson were to compete.
“I knew just by watching players we had playing in high school, and they lacked basic skills,” Smith said. “I knew it had to start with the younger programs, and we were able to convince the parents, mothers, to go to fast pitch, instead of slow pitch, and the mothers were about getting competitive fastpitch in the summer, and probably the leading mother was Carol Meidinger.”
Carol Meidinger, who her and her husband, Rick, made big push making the Polson Softball Complex come to reality, that allowed Polson to develop into a softball powerhouse, Smith said.
As a result of their, and several other volunteer parents, who put in some hours, there several championship banners that now hang proudly in the outfield.
Ashley and Kdee Meidinger were two players who benefitted from their parent’s vision.
“For me, it was a dream, and we made it a reality,” Smith said. “Her two daughters played on the first-ever state championship team on that new complex.”
Smith recalls Rick pushing to make the complex even better than the initial plans.
“Rick spearheaded the things with the playing field and practice field, and he just started working one day and said ‘why don’t we just build a four-field complex, and you think you can just round up some of the fathers to volunteer, and help gather materials, and grants?’ and it didn’t cost our taxpayers anything to build.’’
When asked if Smith would consider returning to the softball diamond this summer, he left the door open.
“I may, only if I am needed, if they have it covered, then I’ll just totally step away from it,” Smith said. “I’ll let the new people run it, and take it over, and run it the way they see it, and it is always tough to get a coach with older kids, and if the parents were that concerned, if there were no coach (for the team) I would do that.”
For the first time since 1988, the Polson Pirates took the field without Larry Smith, who has become known throughout the Mission Valley as “Larry Legend,” as they make to head into the season-opening game on the road at Corvallis High School April 6. Now the Jamie Hanson era has begun.
Bob Gunderson and John Heglie contributed to this story