Sydney Stites always dreamed of attending Iowa State. It wasn’t a straight shot, but those dreams came true for the former Bozeman all-state softball player.
Born in Fargo, N.D. Stites’ family moved to Ames, Iowa where her father, Jon, would attend veterinary medicine. It was there the Stites family met then-Iowa State softball assistant Jamie Pinkerton and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Her parents both went to school at Iowa State and that’s how I met her. Long before I was the coach at Montana, she had been coming to camps at Iowa State. That was her dream school,” said Pinkerton, who recruited Stites to the University of Montana and now coaches her at Iowa State University. “Small world, things always seem to work out.”
Stites’ softball future may have seemed like destiny, but it certainly didn’t come without its share of challenges.
Stites and her family moved to Bozeman where she became a star short stop for a struggling Hawks’ softball program. Despite not seeing the team success she hoped for, Stites became a three-time all-state selection, catching the eye of numerous schools around the western United States, including North Dakota State and Utah Valley State.
But it was Pinkerton that won the recruiting battle, convincing Stites to join the newly-formed University of Montana softball program, which had posted a 16-34 record in its inaugural season in 2015. Stites, also a near-4.0 GPA student, never hesitated
“She’s, like most of the great athletes, they’re great people and usually put the team first. Syd has done that her whole career,” said Pinkerton. “Starting a program at Montana, she came in during the second year as a middle infielder and, versatility is a big thing, she came in and moved to right field and became the (Big Sky Conference) freshman of the year as a right fielder. Selfless, team first, coach cliches we all say, but they do ring true in the case with Syd.”
Stites started 56 games her freshman season, batting .383 on 77 hits, including 18 doubles and 12 home runs. She also drove in 47 runs, scored 52 times and had three stolen bases while posting a fielding percentage of .969 on defense as the Grizzlies broke .500 for the first time in program history.
The following season, Stites battled a broken finger, but managed 50 hits and 38 RBI in 59 games. She added six doubles, three triples and seven home runs during the 2017 season.
“That just showed grit and determination where a lot of people would have been held out of the lineup, she refused, found a way to practice and hit,” said Pinkerton. “She did a great job with it.”
Stites’ final home run of 2017 remains the biggest in UM softball history.
“We were in the Big Sky Conference semifinals in Ogden the year we won the tournament championship and advanced to the NCAA Regional in Seattle, and there was a 3-0 count (in the 10th inning against top-seeded Weber State), it was a 1-1 ball game, she had the 3-0 count and I gave her the take sign,” said Pinkerton. “We were looking for a walk, get a runner on, but she claimed she missed the sign, and I believe her, but she took the game in her own hands and on the 3-0 pitch she hit probably one of the longest home runs I’ve seen, and altitude has an effect on that in Ogden, but she hit one to left-center field that was 250 or 260 feet to give us a 2-1 win and put us in the final.
“She came over and I hugged her neck and said, ‘You know you missed a sign?’ She said, ‘You gave me the take?’ I believe she truly missed it, but that showed the kind of person she is, she took it in her own hands and got the job done. … Without the 3-0 pitch, the solo home run and propelling us into the final, who knows what would have happened.”
Leading the Grizzlies to the NCAA Tournament in only the program’s third season made Pinkerton a hot commodity and he eventually wound up back in Ames as head coach at Iowa State. Though he admittedly didn’t want to “take players” from the University of Montana, giving Stites the opportunity to chase her dream was too good of an opportunity for both coach and player to pass on.
Stites responded immediately, hitting .285 with 51 hits, seven home runs and 11 doubles, while scoring 28 runs and stealing four bases. Defensively, Stites recorded 111 put outs and tied for the team-high with 11 double plays from her second base position.
Entering Friday, Stites, who is one of four female finalists for the Montana Amateur Athletic Union 2019 Little Sullivan Award, held a batting average of .256 in 2019, posting seven doubles, a triple and three home runs. She has also been successful on 25 of 26 defensive chances.
“I was the third coach in three years here at Iowa State and she was able to kind of bridge the gap, kind of help the other players understand what I wanted, what I was after and what we wanted to do with the program,” said Pinkerton. “She helped set that championship culture we had at Montana and get it rolling here.”
“She’s been a joy to be around and when she’s done (playing) it’s going to be great to call her a friend,” Pinkerton continued. “Right now I’m more of the mentor, coach, but to be able to be associated with her when she moves on.”
The 2019 Montana AAU Little Sullivan banquet will be held Saturday, May 4 at the Red Lion Hotel in Billings. Tickets to the event are available until May 1 and can be purchased by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (406) 489-0251.
All current card-holding adult Montana AAU members, plus Montana media representatives, are eligible to vote for this year’s winners by emailing selections to email@example.com by Monday, April 22.
Montana AAU Little Sullivan Award 2019 finalists
Alisha Breen — Choteau, MSU Billings basketball
Hailey Copinga — Billings Skyview, Rocky Mountain College volleyball
Makena Morley — Bigfork, University of Colorado cross country and track and field
Sydney Stites — Bozeman, Iowa State University softball
Jayse McLean — Great Falls CMR, North Dakota State University baseball
Tres Tinkle — Missoula Hellgate, Oregon State basketball
Brandon Weber — Forsyth, MSU-Northern wrestling
Tucker Yates — Colstrip, Montana State University football