MISSOULA — The western Montana sports scene saw colossal change and lots of stuff you never expected in 2017.
Granted, there's a good amount of surprises every year. That's why sports are so much fun to follow.
But my goodness. How many of you expected the Montana football program to undergo such a drastic overhaul?
Here's my six reasons why the year was so stunning:
1. Bob Stitt's three-year reign as Griz football coach ends: It's hard to say exactly when Montana athletic director Kent Haslam made up his mind to bail on Stitt. Was it well before the Nov. 17 Brawl of the Wild when sagging ticket sales provided the last straw for a department short on funds? Was it after losing to the Cats and missing the playoffs a second straight year? One can't help but wonder if Stitt's fate might have been different had he retained Ty Gregorak as defensive coordinator. Gregorak bolted for MSU after Stitt's first season. Gregorak's success containing Stitt's offense as Montana State's D-coordinator definitely played a role in Stitt's fate.
2. The Griz bring back Bobby Hauck as football coach: Some of us figured maybe it could happen, but the way it came about was stunning. No drawn-out interview process. Not much waiting at all really. It's going to be mighty interesting to see what Hauck can accomplish in his second stint. The Big Sky Conference is ripe for the picking for a man with a track record of success like Bobby. But it's far-fetched to expect him to deliver seven straight league titles the way he did from 2003 to 2009 at UM. And it's going to take time to catch up to the likes of North Dakota State.
3. Jamie Pinkerton leads the Montana softball team to an NCAA berth and then leaves for Iowa State: Pinkerton's team was the feel-good story of 2017 for Grizzly athletics. It took him just three seasons to take his program from start-up to Big Sky Conference champion and NCAA qualifier. On top of that, local softball fans have taken to Montana softball in the same way they have embraced Lady Griz basketball. It was heartbreaking but entirely understandable why Pinkerton left for the head coaching job at Iowa State. The great part for me was the way he left the cupboard full for his replacement, Missoula's own Mel Meuchel.
4. Lady Griz lose top two players to knee issues two years in a row: Really now, how often do you hear of such a thing happening? Montana loses the Big Sky preseason MVP and its best post player in the fall of 2016 and again in 2017. They say character is revealed in adversity and this is where UM second-year head coach Shannon Schweyen has been terrific. Lady Griz fans have been pretty darn terrific as well, sticking with the team through thick and thin. But please, please, enough already. This team is overdue for some good fortune and it seems to be coming its way now with six wins in its last eight games.
5. High school shockers: OK, where do we start? Hot Springs canceled its 2017 varsity football season just one year after winning the Class C 6-man championship (fortunately the Savage Heat and their top-level coach Jim Lawson will be back in the 6-man ranks this coming fall). Or how about Kalispell Flathead freshman Tilynne Vasquez? She became the first girl to place in the Montana State AA wrestling tourney in February, then took second at the USA Wrestling Nationals in July.
6. Osprey win Pioneer League North with .500 record: It's hard to beat fun at Ogren-Allegiance Park in the summertime. Time spent in the press box with my quick-witted media colleagues is always a treat. We even managed to get some work done, covering an O's team that earned a first-half North Division title in July despite its 19-19 record. Here's looking forward to more success when manager Mike Benjamin returns for a second season in June.
Writing a Sunday sports column has been a labor of love for me the past 11 years. Speaking on behalf of my talented and amiable co-workers on the Missoulian sports staff — Kyle Houghtaling, Frank Gogola and Amie Just — we look forward to bringing you the best in western Montana sports coverage again in 2018.