College softball: With WCWS perfect game, Alabama's Montana Fouts inspires past and future generations

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- As Montana Fouts took firm command against UCLA, throwing one strike after another, stymying Olympians and everyone else in the lineup, her dad stood in the Alabama supporters section without truly realizing what was unfolding in front of him.

In a hotel room a few miles down the road late on Friday night, Courtney Blades-Rogers knew exactly what was about to happen. She realized it in the fourth inning, in fact. Blades-Rogers, the last pitcher to throw a perfect game in the WCWS, started to bite her nails. If she is being honest, she thought to herself, "please, walk SOMEBODY."

In the top of the sixth inning, her family realized Fouts was inching closer to a perfect game, a feat that would put Fouts in the same company that Blades-Rogers entered in 2000 as a senior at Southern Miss. Her son came up to her and asked, "Mom, are you going to be upset if she throws a perfect game?"

Meanwhile, inside the stadium, someone came up to Tim Fouts with two outs left in the seventh inning and told him, "Montana is about to throw a perfect game!"

"I was like, 'What? No way, how do you do that against UCLA?'" Tim Fouts said. "That just doesn't happen. So very proud of her, and shocked, to be honest with you. I'm shocked."

An hour after Montana Fouts became the fifth pitcher to throw a perfect game in the WCWS in a 6-0 win over the Bruins, and the first since Blades-Rogers, Tim Fouts remained speechless. Tim had seen his daughter throw no-hitters and perfect games in high school. Since she started throwing a softball at age 7, he saw every game and every pitch, yet watching his own child make history against one of the most historic programs in college softball seemed too incredible to believe.

Even though he had helped prime Fouts for this very moment.

As soon as Montana expressed an interest in wanting to pitch, Tim determined he would learn from the best to make his daughter the best. They were huge fans of softball pitching royalty Jennie Finch, so he asked her dad, Doug, "Who teaches Jennie?"

"Me," he said.

"Then I want to learn from you," Tim said.

Montana attended various Finch summer camps, and Tim proceeded in the same way Doug did with Jennie, refusing to complicate much with her mechanics.

Tim would make the 80-mile drive from his home in Charleston, West Virginia, to Grayson, Kentucky, where Montana lived with her mom. By the time she finished high school, Montana became the best pitching prospect in the country, having thrown 25 no-hitters and 15 perfect games and earning 2018 USA Today All-USA High School Player of the Year honors.

She won 21 games as a freshman at Alabama with a team-leading 1.39 ERA and appeared well on her way to greatness. After an early tournament in Arizona that first season, Alabama coach Patrick Murphy told espnW, "She's going to be one of those kids where if you just say, 'Montana,' you're going to know who it is."

But entering her sophomore year in 2020, something felt a little off with her game. She won only three of her eight starts in the COVID-19-shortened season with an uncharacteristic 2.04 ERA. When players were sent home indefinitely in March, she told Murphy how disappointed she was with her season.

"That will never happen again," she told him.

She returned home, and Tim Fouts said Montana did a lot of fishing, a lot of relaxing, "just laying low." She also committed herself to rediscovering the groove that made her a pitcher with the potential to be the best player in the country. Tim calls the 2020 season "a mulligan."

"This point started in 2020," Montana Fouts said. "I think that we had to go through all of that to get where we're at and feeling what we're feeling right now. But, honestly, I was just trusting in the process, like Murph says all the time, that's what we need to do, and I was trusting that process, I was trusting God's process, and my coaches. I just think they believe in me, so why can't I believe in myself?"

Teammates saw a reinvigorated Fouts when they returned to campus.

"If you know Montana, you know that that perfect game started back in August when she was working so hard, and she was the first one to the field and the last one to leave," first baseman Kaylee Tow said. "So just seeing it come full circle for her and her being able to see her hard work pay off, she's an awesome person and awesome friend and an awesome teammate, and it couldn't happen to a better person."

Fouts has been virtually unstoppable since mid-April, the last time she lost a game. ESPN analyst Amanda Scarborough, a former pitcher at Texas A&M, noticed a change after teammate Lexi Kilfoyl got injured around the same time.

"When Lexi was unable to throw for a few weeks, it put more on Montana Fouts, and she took it and ran with it," Scarborough said. "She wanted more, just like she wants to ball in the big moments. So I felt like she likes knowing that the pressure was on her, and she thrives in those moments, and she just has gotten better and better. Just like in a regular-season series, she would get better in game three. She's built and built and built to become what she is here now."

In the SEC tournament, she went 3-0 and set a tournament record with 39 strikeouts. Her shutout of Florida in the championship game was the first in the SEC title game since 2006. She continued the dominance in the regionals against Clemson, throwing two complete games and striking out 28. Then she pitched another complete game in the super regional against Kentucky.

In the WCWS opener against Arizona, she struck out 16, then took the mound again Friday to face UCLA, the 2019 champion. Bubba Nickles and Rachel Garcia, headed to the Olympics after the WCWS, had no luck in the first inning -- and that just set the stage for what was to come. Alabama had never beaten UCLA in softball, until Friday night.

"When Montana came, she had curveball, fastball, and that was basically it," Murphy said. "She threw a high fastball as her rise ball. And she has just developed those pitches, the movement pitches, and we knew she had the speed, but when she got the movement, it was going to be pretty special. Nobody wants to take any time anymore and it has to be instant gratification, and it takes time to develop these pitches. She made it a point to work her butt off to become what she is right now."

"If you know Montana, you know that that perfect game started back in August when she was working so hard, and she was the first one to the field and the last one to leave." Alabama first baseman Kaylee Tow

Blades-Rogers happened to be in Oklahoma City with Georgia softball, where her daughter, Britton Rogers, is a freshman pitcher. The team gathered in its hotel to watch the game, and Blades-Rogers was lasered in on Fouts -- a pitcher she tells her own daughter to study from time to time.

There were a few moments when the walk that Blades-Rogers had hoped for nearly happened. Fouts had a 3-0 count in the bottom of the third before a strike to Kelli Godin and then a groundout. Garcia and Aaliyah Jordan both had three-ball counts in the fourth. Briana Perez was up 3-0 in the count before two fouls and a swinging strikeout to end the fifth.

Blades-Rogers started flashing back to her own history-making performance, a 1-0 WCWS win against Arizona.

"UCLA swung at a rise ball, and I know that feeling, too, because I remember, I had a 3-2 count and the ball came out of my hand, and it was supposed to be a screwball," Blades-Rogers said. "When it came out of my hand, I was like, 'Oh, no,' and it went up. And the girl swung. So I know the feeling.

"When you're a pitcher, you always have hopes and dreams of doing something great like that. It's a culmination of tons of work, a lot of sweat and a lot of tears, probably more tears than sweat. Because you just have days that are great. And you have days that are not great. And then when you go out there, when I was watching her, she looked locked in. And that's how I knew in the fourth inning, I'm like, 'She's not giving up a hit.' It is unbelievable that she did it because it is so hard."

Blades-Rogers watched it all unfold, Alexis Mack catching Jordan's flyout on the warning track to seal it and the ensuing celebration -- on Fouts' 21st birthday, no less -- but she was not upset. A little sad, yes, but not upset. How could she be?

There is a tremendous sense of pride and appreciation in watching another pitcher master her craft the way Fouts has. In fact, Blades-Rogers said she believes Fouts is "changing the game.

"A lot of young pitchers can look at her and just say, 'Hey, I want to be like her.'"