A cursory glance at the Carroll softball roster would suggest shortstop Justine Taylor has assumed a staunch leadership role.

She's the lone senior in a second-year program comprised primarily of freshmen and sophomores.

But that young program will begin its first-ever conference tournament at 5:30 p.m. Friday in Ashland, Oregon. Carroll (24-20), the No. 1 seed from the East, awaits the winner of East No. 3 seed University of Great Falls (22-16) and West No. 2 Oregon Tech (27-18). They face off at 12:30.

Taylor exhibits enough sway for the Cascade Conference's East Division champion. Away from the diamond, though, her demeanor mirrors that of a free-spirited underclassmen.

"I'm a senior, but I'm probably the most immature one on the team," Taylor joked. "It feels kind of weird to be only (senior) on a young team, but the girls make me feel like we're all the same age. It's been fun."

Taylor has been a key defensive cog for Carroll since the team's genesis in 2015, when it finished 13-27 before flipping the switch this spring. At the plate, she's hitting .340, slugging .420 and is second on the team in steals (11).

The first senior to trickle through coach Aaron Jackson's program, he's fortunate to have the Belgrade product's vast skill set.

"She's young at heart, but also shows that level of maturity of what it takes to be a leader," Jackson said. "She blends both and plays with such passion."

Taylor's also a winner.

The daughter of Belgrade High softball coach Justin Taylor, she never finished lower than third place in any of her four Class A state softball tournaments. At NJCAA Division II Dawson Community College in Glendive, her team claimed a pair of conference championships and regional title.

With Carroll's recent East Division crown, she's now won at every level.

When Taylor was recruited by Jackson while at DCC in 2014, she wasn't lost on the fact that Carroll's inaugural season would likely be the roughest of her softball career, wins-wise.

The sell for Taylor, however, was staying in state, an hour-and-a-half from home, while setting a foundation. In her second year in Helena, she now finds herself on a team that believes it has a viable chance of pushing for a conference title and a national tournament berth.

"It's exciting," she said. "But I felt no matter what, I could come in and make a difference. When you're the first one to get to experience a new program, it's pretty cool."

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Taylor, who is majoring in elementary education, said she still has another year of school before graduation. Her softball life could end this weekend, though.

That's not in her plans.

"Every game might be her last, and she's been playing like it," Jackson said.

She doesn't plan to change that approach this weekend.

"I'm just trying to play as normal as I can," Taylor said. "In the back of my head, I know it's different, and want to play the best I can because I don't want it to end.

The Saints went 2-2 against Great Falls in the regular season and 1-1 against Oregon Tech. It's a double elimination tournament.

Tournament host and West Division champion Southern Oregon (34-14) is the lone CCC team in the NAIA Top 25. Carroll dropped both games to SOU in Helena back in March.

"I'm ready to put this 18 against any team in the conference," Jackson. "Our schedule this year has prepared us for this tournament."


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