The University of Montana baseball team begins its Northern Pacific Conference North division slate this weekend and — as if they needed extra motivation — will take on bitter rival Montana State for a three-game series in Bozeman.
UM skipper Ryan Sharkey said that his team already knows the importance of starting off on the right foot in conference and that playing the Cats only adds fuel to the fire.
“As we’ve learned in this conference, when you get in an early rut it can be hard to dig yourself out,” Sharkey said. “We wouldn’t take it easy on anyone, but especially MSU. We really need to come out swinging and have the mentality that we won’t settle for anything less than three wins.”
The Griz won the season series last year against the Bobcats, taking two out of three in Missoula. Sharkey said that while he’s not quite familiar with this year’s MSU squad, he knows that it will be a dogfight.
“I know they graduated a handful of guys and they have a new coach, so I’m not entirely sure what they’re going to throw at us,” Sharkey said. “So we’re preparing to see a quality Bobcat team like we always have. We just have to have a ‘step on their throat’ attitude because they always fight hard until the final out and no lead is really safe.”
The Griz had some time off since starting the season three weeks ago at the Swing into Spring tournament in Mesquite, Nev. UM went 2-2 in the tournament, grabbing wins over Idaho State and Utah. Their losses came on a 5-3 defeat to defending NCBA champs Utah State and a 3-2 edging by Western Washington University.
Sharkey said that although their offense didn’t perform well, it is to be expected this time of the year.
“You always expect pitchers to be ahead of hitters this early in the season, because they’re able to practice inside all winter, while most guys haven’t seen a live ball thrown at them since last year,” Sharkey said. “I thought our bats really picked up in our last game against WWU, though.”
The Griz were led offensively by junior transfer Will Cote, who Sharkey said will get things going for UM at the plate.
“Will is just a tough out for anybody he faces,” Sharkey said. “If they try to go outside on him he’ll take it the other way, and if they mess up and go inside on him he can make them pay.”
Sharkey said he was pleased with what he saw out of his bullpen in the opening games, and that their depth on the mound could pay big dividends down the road.
“We’ve got six or seven quality options right away for starters, and none of the three spots are set in stone yet and we’ve got some long relievers that can come in if one of the starters gets beat up early,” Sharkey said. “And we’ve got a couple young guys in Marcus Anstensen and Jordan Gitlin who are both vying for the closer spot, and that’s going to be a fun competition to watch.”
Playing three games in two days may seem like a lot to handle, but Sharkey said that he is confident that his team’s experience won’t allow them to take their foot off the gas.
“We’ve got such a strong group of upperclassmen and when you factor in the depth that we have unlike some of the smaller schools, playing three games isn’t really that much to ask,” he said.
The Griz kick off the weekend with a double-header Saturday in Bozeman starting at 11 a.m. and wrap up the series on Sunday at noon.