STORY BY MONTANA SPORTS INFORMATION
MISSOULA – All the newcomers who will be joining the Montana soccer program in the fall had options. Though none had options quite like Alexa Coyle, who not only had to choose between schools but between sports.
Because when you win a U16 national title in skiing at the U.S. Alpine Championships as a sophomore and score 29 goals in 17 matches on a state championship soccer team at Bozeman High as a senior and get named the Montana Player of the Year, college coaches of both sports tend to track you down.
“Skiing is an interesting process,” says Coyle, whose surname will sound familiar to most Griz fans. Her older brother Brock played football at Montana and is now with the Seattle Seahawks.
“To ski at a Division I program, I would have had to take a gap year, because there is a point system. You almost have to take a year off between high school and college and just race all season. I knew I didn’t want to do that, so by junior year I knew I wanted to play soccer.”
Skiing’s loss is Montana’s gain. Coyle will be one of 12 newcomers joining the Grizzlies next fall, the only player in the group from the state.
Coach Mark Plakorus, who will be in his seventh season next year, also is bringing in three players from California, three from Colorado and one each from Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and South Dakota.
It’s a large class, especially considering only seven players went through Senior Day festivities last October.
“The goal for this class was probably around eight or so, but if I feel a player can add value to our program and help make us better, I’m going to try to get them,” said Plakorus.
“As I went out looking, I just kept finding these players I liked. They were the right fits for us positionally as well as athletically, and just how they are as people. It just happened that it grew to 12.”
Half of Montana’s incoming class will be defenders: Avery Adams (Highlands Ranch, Colo.), Gabbi DeMarce (Rapid City, S.D.), Taylor Hansen (Cardiff by the Sea, Calif.), Emily Peters (Bremerton, Wash.), Caitlin Rogers (Murrieta, Calif.) and Claire Steffe (Castle Pines, Colo.).
Mikee Furrow (Caldwell, Idaho) and Morgan Meatovich (Las Vegas, Nev.) are forwards, Ally Shelton (Ventura, Calif.) and Raye Burton (Centennial, Colo.) are midfielders, and Coyle and Rita Lang (Sherwood, Ore.) can play either forward or midfield.
“All these players are great young ladies with really good character,” said Plakorus. “And they are driven. They want to be good at what they are doing. They are the kind of young ladies who just want more.
“They want to get better and always want to get more out of what they are doing. It’s a class that gives us depth throughout our entire team and will increase the competitive level to get on the field, which is an important element of our team.”
That half of Plakorus’s newcomers are defenders was by design. It was the position group hit hardest by graduation.
Tess Brenneman, two times voted first-team All-Big Sky Conference as a center back, started 77 matches in her career. Mary Gintz, an outside back, started 57 over her final three seasons. One of the team’s other seniors was Payton Agnew, also a center back.
Chanelle Pederson, an outside back, and Ashlee Pedersen, a center back who can also be moved up to forward when necessary, both will be seniors in the fall.
What’s been a strength for Montana the last few seasons, with experienced players across the back line, will be undergoing a transformation.
“Between last fall and next fall, we will lose almost every defender we have,” said Plakorus. “I wanted to make sure we gave ourselves some quality depth and really solidified our back line.
“Our younger players who are returning have been grooming to be in those spots, but after that we don’t have a lot of depth. I wanted to make sure we don’t have a depth problem, and I also wanted to make sure we’re very talented in those positions.”
Rogers, who has twice advanced to the final eight at the US Youth Soccer National Championships with Legends FC, and DeMarce are center backs.
Hansen, who won an ECNL national championship with San Diego Surf in 2014, and Peters are outside backs, as are Adams and Steffe, both of whom played for Real Colorado, an ECNL team that finished sixth in the nation in 2014.
Switching to the other end of the field, Montana’s two leading scorers last season, with four goals each, were Hallie Widner, who is 5-foot-5, and McKenzie Warren, who is 5-foot-2.
Meatovich will arrive in the fall at six feet, giving Montana something different up front not just in size but in attitude. She has the same You can get between me and the ball but I wouldn’t advise it approach to scoring goals not seen in a Grizzly uniform since Erin Craig.
Furrow is also a forward.
Shelton gives Montana a 5-foot-11 defensive midfielder, and Burton will arrive at Montana with perhaps the most impressive soccer resume of the bunch.
She is in the pool of players in US Youth Soccer’s Olympic Development Program for Region IV, and she was identified by U.S. Soccer earlier in her career and invited to participate in U.S. Soccer Training Center.
“Raye is one of the best midfielders I’ve recruited as a college soccer coach,” said Plakorus, whose college coaching career dates back to 1999. “She does everything well, and she still has room to grow, which is exciting to me.
“She is very talented, works very hard and can be physical when she needs to be physical. She likes to score goals but also will defend and do the dirty stuff.”
The forwards/midfielders, Coyle and Lang, both have unique backstories. Coyle was a national champion skier. Lang was born in Portugal before moving to Oregon. She has played games for Portugal’s U16 and U19 national teams.
“Rita is going to bring a different dimension with her experiences and what she’s gone through with the teams she’s made,” said Plakorus. “There is just something different about her. She’s good with the ball, quick, explosive, makes great decisions and is very creative in what she does.”
And that brings the group back to where it started: with Coyle.
Living in Bozeman did not give her access to the high-level soccer most of her future teammates have enjoyed, but she’s making up for it as a discovery player for FC Nova, an ECNL team from Meridian, Idaho, which she joins for games and tournaments while still practicing with the Bozeman Blitzz.
Making the jump can be done, and she doesn’t have to look far for an example. Her brother was undrafted out of Montana in 2014 but signed a free agent contract with Seattle. He made two starts at linebacker his first season and just finished up his third.
“Brock’s been a great example for me,” said Coyle. “If you work hard at your goals, you’ll definitely achieve them. He’s been a great role model for me.”
Coyle finished her career at Bozeman High with 45 career goals. After leading the Hawks to last fall’s state championship — BHS outscored its three tournament opponents 10-0 — Coyle was voted Montana Player of the Year by the Montana High School Coaches Association.
“Unlike most of the others, Alexa hasn’t played soccer all year round, so I’m excited to get her into the program,” said Plakorus. “She is only going to grow and get better in an environment like ours, where it’s competitive and she is focusing just on soccer year-round.
“She’s seen with Brock what hard work is and what it can lead to. It’s one thing to see it. It’s another to make the choice that you want to work hard as well and dedicate yourself like she does to being as good as she can possibly be.”
Montana’s newcomers will join a team that has won three Big Sky Conference championships under Plakorus: a tournament title in 2011, a regular-season co-championship in 2012 and an outright title in 2014.
The Grizzlies went 9-6-5 last fall and tied for third in the Big Sky with a 5-2-3 league record.
“I don’t think there is a coach out there who is ever disappointed in their recruiting class. I think we all say we’re really excited, and I know I am about this class,” said Plakorus.
“They want to be a part of this. They want to come here and make a difference. They want to help elevate our team and compete to get on the field, and that’s all you can ask for as a coach.”
What the players are saying:
Avery Adams (Defender, Highlands Ranch, Colo.)
It’s hard to find any negatives about Montana. The location of campus in Missoula is amazing, and it’s one of the prettiest places I’ve been! I’m excited to be in a town that has a very small-town feel and focused around the outdoors. I also love the team environment and the way everyone interacted with each other. Mark and the players really made me feel at home there, and continue to do so. I’m excited to play for a program that is at the top of its conference and has the ability to win championships!
Raye Burton (Midfielder, Centennial, Colo.)
For me, the college recruiting process was a lot tougher than I expected. I knew I wanted to compete at a high level of soccer with a good academic program. After looking at many Division I schools, the University of Montana seemed to have everything I was looking for. All the little things added up to make Missoula a great fit for me. The people there are very inviting and the campus is beautiful. It is a solid soccer program, and I get the opportunity to play in or near my home state of Colorado. It’s far enough away but still an easy trip home.
I am looking forward to a fresh start and meeting new people. Coach Mark was genuine throughout the entire recruiting process. From first recruiting me as a center back at Rush, to still showing a lot of interest as I moved to Storm playing attacking midfield. I am very excited to play for him and represent the University of Montana. I have always wanted to go to a school with a very tight-knit team, which is what I felt from the girls every time I visited. I signed to play for the Grizzlies because it felt like a place I could call home.
Alexa Coyle (Forward/midfielder, Bozeman, Mont.)
I decided to play for the Grizzlies and attend the University of Montana because academically and athletically it seemed like the perfect fit for me! I love Mark and his coaching staff, and I knew they would help me achieve all my goals as a player. The soccer program that Mark has created is strong and competitive and I wanted to be a part of it. I love the city of Missoula and how supportive it is of all the UM athletic programs. The university has a beautiful campus and has a great business school, which I plan on majoring in. The university, the city of Missoula and the Griz soccer program are special, and I can’t wait to be a part of it! Go Griz!
Gabbi DeMarce (Defender, Rapid City, S.D.)
I signed to play for the Grizzlies because I know in my heart that I am meant to be on the team. Over the past four years, deciding on a college has been a huge priority, and to make it even more difficult, I also had to consider the soccer team as well. I toured many colleges all over the Midwest and a few outside of those states, but there was always something missing. It worried me to think that I might not find the right school for me. Fortunately, a few years ago I found myself in Missoula and fell in love. As an outdoor enthusiast, with a love for hiking and photography, the University of Montana will be able to fulfill my need for the mountains. I am beyond excited to start the next chapter of my life playing with a group of girls who will become my home away from home while we play the game we are all passionate for.
Mikee Furrow (Forward, Caldwell, Idaho)
The University of Montana really surprised me last summer. I never knew you could have the small-town feel along with the Division I title. I knew that having coaches I could connect with and a team that feels like family were a big deal to me. Coming to the UM camp this past summer, my mind was blown by the close atmosphere of the town and its people. Along with falling in love with Missoula, I really connected with Coach Mark and my camp coach, Ellie (Otteson). Ellie was a huge insight to what life as a college athlete could be and she helped me find out if this was something I could see myself doing for the next 4+ years. Thanks to them, and the support of my family and coaches, I get to play more of the sport I love at the school I love! Go Griz!
Taylor Hansen (Defender, Cardiff by the Sea, Calif.)
I feel so blessed to be able to officially call myself a Grizzly. There are many reasons why I signed with the University of Montana, the main reason being when I visited it just felt like I had found a second home. Coach Mark was extremely helpful throughout my recruiting process, and it was clear he had my best interests at heart. After meeting the girls on the team I just knew that Montana was where I needed to be. That the beautiful town of Missoula is filled with some of the nicest people I have ever met was just an added bonus.
Rita Lang (Forward/midfielder, Sherwood, Ore.)
I chose Montana because I want to be challenged and play side-by-side with very talented players and against tough competition so I can continue to grow and develop as an athlete. I thought the campus was beautiful and the atmosphere was very friendly and comfortable, a place where I could see myself living in. I was impressed with Coach Mark’s style of coaching and his soccer program, and really saw myself playing for this school. Plus, all the girls were so friendly and welcoming! I am very excited to come to Montana this fall. It will be a great place to further my education and my athletic career.
Morgan Meatovich (Forward, Las Vegas, Nev.)
From the desert of Las Vegas to the mountains of Montana, I cannot think of a greater university experience for me. After the first phone call with Coach Mark to the moment I stepped on campus, I knew I wanted to be a Griz. I fell in love with the academics they offered, the beauty Montana has and the amazing athletics program. I have never felt so comfortable and at home in such a short period of time. Everything was just so unbelievably perfect. When I was getting ready to leave from my first visit, it became clear to me that I never wanted to leave a place as great as Montana. I committed while I was there that trip, and I could not be happier with my decision to be a Grizzly. I’ve been waiting two years too long for this day and I am beyond excited to start this new chapter in my life. Watch out for #91 on the field. Go Griz!
Emily Peters (Defender, Bremerton, Wash.)
College was always in my future. The hard part was finding the right fit, like a good book or a perfect-fitting soccer shoe. I had to look around, but once I visited the University of Montana, I just knew it was the perfect fit for me. All you have to do is walk the campus and the town to catch the Grizzly spirit that is everywhere. It is evident that the city of Missoula supports its student-athletes and the university. Coach Mark, the staff and the players worked very hard to create a positive relationship with me from the beginning and made me feel comfortable every step of the way. I am very excited for my next chapter as a Griz.
Caitlin Rogers (Defender, Murrieta, Calif.)
I signed with the Grizzlies for many reasons, but it first sparked my interest freshman year in my ICT Careers class. We were doing an assignment on collegeboard.com and I came across Montana, so I clicked on the link and started researching. I first looked to see if it had my major or something like it, and it did. Next I looked at the soccer program and was very impressed with how the team had been doing. I saw they had a game scheduled the following Friday against UC Riverside. I got my mom to take me to the game since it was only an hour away. I liked the way they played and the location of the school’s campus, so I emailed Mark asking him to come watch me play. I then went to the camp they have and just loved the vibe of the campus and town. It gives me much joy and excitement that I will soon be a part of the Griz family.
Ally Shelton (Midfielder, Ventura, Calif.)
The reason I signed with Montana was because I clicked with Mark and felt he was a coach I would enjoy playing for. I met the girls and got a homie vibe, and the campus was beyond beautiful. Different from Cali and something new and exciting. Everyone in Montana was nice, and that’s something new from Cali. Missoula helped me with my choice. When I went on my official it was like the entire town was shutting down for a football game. I went on plenty of visits but Montana was by far the best. I love the coaching staff and the girls and the incoming class as well. I feel beyond blessed, and I’m extremely excited to live the college life and do it while playing the sport I love. I’m lucky to now call myself a Grizzly now. Go Griz!
Claire Steffe (Defender, Castle Pines, Colo.)
Growing up in Colorado I fell in love with nature and going on adventures in the mountains. Although I love Colorado, I knew I wanted to experience another state. When first visiting Montana, I still felt at home and loved everything the campus had to offer: surrounded by beautiful mountains, great academics in my interest of environmental studies and just the right size with a beautiful campus. When making my decision, I wanted it to be the school I would go to whether I was playing soccer or not. I quickly knew the University of Montana was the school for me! I feel so blessed that I get to play soccer there on top of it all. After meeting the staff and players and feeling so welcomed, my decision was easy.