(Editor’s Note: Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA – It wasn’t the win that it could have been — 3-0 probably would have been more reflective of the one-sided nature of the match — but it was still a victory for the Montana soccer team on Friday evening over Vermont at South Campus Stadium on Hallie Widner’s goal in the final minute of regulation.
The 1-0 decision was the Grizzlies’ first win of the season and the first for Chris Citowicki as a Division I head coach. “This is one of my favorite wins ever,” he said after the match, but not for the reasons you might guess.
His team’s effort, to his immense satisfaction, was the embodiment of Jacob Riis’s stonecutter, who hammered away at his rock without so much as a crack to show for it. Until the decisive blow finally arrived.
It may have been Widner’s goal — it came with just 48 seconds left in regulation — that finally broke things open, but it was all that led up to the goal that made Citowicki’s day.
His Grizzlies controlled possession from the opening minute until the last, and while missed opportunities mounted, his team never changed its approach. It kept at it, just as it had the first 89 minutes. And the final strike won the day.
“We talked about it at halftime, that it’s going to come if you keep knocking and trust the process. We’re not going to go long ball. We’re not going to do anything different,” said Citowicki, whose team outshot Vermont 18-6 and created 10 corners to the Catamounts’ two.
“Trust the process, keep the ball and when it comes, it will come. And it came right at the end. I loved that we didn’t stray from what we always do. We kept doing the same thing, and it finally worked out for us.”
The goal came about the same way Montana attacked the entire game: with multiple players involved and so many of them dangerous.
McKenzie Warren, who took a team-high five shots, nearly scored the game-winner not a minute before Widner did, but her shot was saved by Kacey Lambertson, one of her seven for the match.
The shot was saved, but it also went over the end line, giving the Grizzlies a final-minute corner kick. Kennedy Yost took it, and Taryn Miller had the first touch, with her head.
The bouncing ball went to Alexa Coyle, a physical force each of the 67 minutes she spent on the field, and her shot was blocked. It ended up at Widner’s feet not 10 yards from the goal, and that’s always bad news for the opponent.
She didn’t take anything off her shot, either, ripping one into the upper right-hand corner of the goal, putting an emphatic end to a night of frustrations. Or did she?
“I wouldn’t say it was frustration. More like anticipation. We were getting all these opportunities, one had to eventually go in,” she said. “It was another step in the right direction, but a little step. We still have a lot more to take.”
Montana spent nearly as much time in the opposing team’s box, creating chance after chance, whether it resulted in a shot or not, as the Catamounts did on the other end of the field.
It was a performance weeks in the making and one hinted at in season-opening losses to Fresno State, San Francisco and, especially, Arizona State.
“It was our most complete attacking performance in terms of creating opportunities that were legitimate,” said Citowicki. “Their keeper had to make saves. Legitimate, good saves.
“And credit Vermont for the way they defended. They’re young, they’re hungry, they fight hard, they never give up. You just have to keep going until the ball goes in.”
She faced six shots and had to make five saves at the other end, but goalkeeper Claire Howard was hardly tested. Most of the saves she was credited with were at the soft end of the word’s definition, scooping up shots that were rolling toward goal or catching balls sent from distance.
To pick up her first win of the season and eighth career shutout, she was more focused on what was taking place in front of her, going the other way, than what was coming at her.
“It was more about keeping myself composed and calm and translating that to the people in front of me so they could translate that to the forwards, just to say, it’s coming, it’s coming. I just wanted to continue to encourage them,” she said.
Citowicki went thin on his subs again, playing just five Grizzlies off the bench, only Sami Siems more than 26 minutes. But that hardly means it was anything short of a complete team effort.
It’s another reason the coach felt it was one of the best wins of his coaching career.
“I’m super proud of everybody on the bench who didn’t play,” he said. “The energy level had to be sustained by everyone. Everybody had to stay focused.
“If at any point we got frustrated that we weren’t scoring and it got quiet on the bench and quiet on the field, that’s how you let an opponent back into the game. So this was a complete team performance from everybody. That’s why it’s one of my favorite wins ever.”
Outside of Howard, five other starters played all 90 minutes, including Miller and Caitlin Rogers at center back, and Taylor Hansen at outside back, a player who would be worth the price of admission even if all a person could do was watch her run and compete and perform borderline magic tricks with her feet.
Going the distance in the midfield were Ellie Otteson and Kennedy Yost, a contact-seeking player who deserves an entire night in an ice bath so often was she mixing it up and battling for the ball.
The only thing that might match the team’s satisfaction from the victory is some of their exhaustion levels.
And if Friday was fun, Sunday holds the promise of being even better, when Montana hosts undefeated North Dakota (3-0). The Fighting Hawks used their own second-half goal on Friday afternoon to get by Idaho 1-0.
The Grizzlies and Fighting Hawks, who have not allowed a goal this season while scoring eight of their own, will play at 1 p.m.