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HELENA -- The Helena High softball team will entertain Missoula Big Sky on Thursday, in a best-of-three Western Conference playoff, as the two teams battle for a berth in next week's State AA Tournament in Helena. The first pitch at Mihelish Field is slated for 1 p.m.

The No. 4 Bengals own a 10-8 overall record, while the No. 5 Eagles stand at 4-10.

HHS swept the two season meetings over Big Sky, 20-8 and 13-2. But Helena coach Ryan Schulte said that Big Sky "is a team getting better every game" and finished the year with a big win over crosstown Hellgate, so they "have some momentum" coming into this week.

"They have some very solid hitters in the top part of their lineup. Brylee Meisinger their shortstop, is speedy on the bases, and their pitcher Payton Hudson improved a great deal from our first game against them," said Schulte, who guided the Bengals to a third-place trophy at State last year. "Defensively, I thought they were the most improved team from game one to game two."

Helena is batting .321 as a team, led by three .400 hitters. Third baseman Vanessa Walsh and second baseman Jamie Pickens are tied for the team lead with identical .424 averages, while catcher Kali Anderson is hitting .407. Pitcher Mariah English and left fielder Sam Matteucci are next, at .314 and .297, respectively.

Pickens, English and shortstop Amber Countryman have six doubles apiece, while English is the home run leader with four round-trippers.

Walsh paces the club with 22 runs batted, 20 runs scored, and a .729 slugging percentage. Anderson is high with a .500 on base percentage. Lyndie Ark is batting .429 in a reserve role.

English owns a 5-6 record in the circle, with 75 strikeouts in 92 innings pitched, and 3.78 earned run average. Tyliegh Burchard is 1-0 in 17 innings, with a 3.70 ERA.

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Schulte pointed out that among the keys to his squad's success this week will be the pitchers finding a rhythm early and not trying to do too much.

"We have played great team defense when our pitchers keep the ball down and force the opponents to put the ball in play," the Bengals skipper related. "I was really happy on Saturday (a 17-4 win over Skyview) with both Tyleigh's and Mariah's efficiency, so I'm expecting both of them to carry that into Thursday.

"Offensively we're getting better but we need our entire lineup to produce this week. We're looking for some more consistency in the bottom part of our order and we need someone to step up in these playoff games."

Schulte recounted his softballers were "aggressive but loose" on Saturday, and need to build on that momentum coming into the Big Sky playoff.

"We're still a team trying to find that last little bit of chemistry and identity that we need to carry us into postseason play and I'm excited to see what they bring on Thursday," he concluded.

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