(Editor’s note: story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA – It wasn’t the Grizzlies’ recent run to a Big Sky Conference championship and NCAA tournament appearance that convinced Emme Fernandez that Montana was where she needed to be.
It wasn’t first-year coach Chris Citowicki’s recruiting pitch last summer either, nor was it former coach Mark Plakorus’s connection to the Fernandez family, a tie that dates back to his time as an assistant at TCU and as an Olympic Development Program coach of Fernandez’s older sister.
No, what sold Fernandez, who lives in Van Alstyne, Texas, located 45 miles north of Dallas, was a movie she saw growing up, the 1992 film “A River Runs Through It,” or 124 minutes of The Last Best Place on full display and at its most idyllic.
“I thought, Man, that’s a cool place,” said Fernandez, one of 10 prep players who signed National Letters of Intent this week to play for the Griz soccer program. “Montana was my dream school ever since.”
She gave a verbal commitment first to Plakorus, then reaffirmed it last summer when Citowicki took over as head coach, but it wasn’t a hard sell for either of them. Fernandez’s heart had long ago declared its intent.
“I’m not going to lie. My heart jumped out of my chest (when I got Mark’s offer),” Fernandez said. “I always wanted to live in Montana, and it gave me the perfect opportunity to make it happen.”
Ten players, 10 different reasons for signing with Montana, but at the core for most of the future Grizzlies was Citowicki’s message. Or promise as he calls it. He wants to make his program the best place in the nation to play soccer.
He sells not the promise of playing time or of championships — though as everyone saw earlier this month, those are going to follow as a result — but an overall experience, one he believes has the potential to be unlike any other for a four-year Division I soccer player.
“His philosophy was different from every other coach I talked to,” said Sydney Haustein, whose hometown is Las Vegas but who attends Shattuck St. Mary’s, a boarding school in Minnesota known mostly for its hockey but more and more for its soccer. Two of Montana’s signees attend the school.
“He talks about how you grow as a person first, then as a player. I liked everything he had to say. He’s going to do everything he can for you not only as a player but as a person. Going through his program will set you up as you go into the real world.”
It’s a philosophy Citowicki began putting together as a graduate assistant coach at Bemidji State years ago. He then had a chance to begin implementing it in his six seasons as head coach at St. Catherine, where he saw the result of bringing in a big group early on that shared this class’s ethos.
It’s continued to evolve into what it is today.
“When players sit down with us, the first thing we talk about are the values of the program, the purpose of the program and what we’re trying to do for them as people,” said Citowicki. “Only then do we delve into the soccer side of things and talk about what we want to do as a program.
“When you take that approach, it means you’re recruiting the right people, first and foremost. All 10 of these players are very driven human beings who just want to get it done. I can’t wait to bring them in and watch them flourish in this environment, because that’s exactly what they’re going to do.”
Citowicki covered the field with his first recruiting class, starting in the back with goalkeeper Elizabeth Todd, of Oakland, Calif.
Incoming defenders will be Allie Larsen (Louisville, Colo.), Marley Muelhaupt (West Des Moines, Iowa) and Jordan Wood (Yorba Linda, Calif.).
The midfielders are Haustein, Kennedi Christ (Encinitas, Calif.) and Molly Massman (San Luis Obispo, Calif.), the forwards are Fernandez, Lizzy Gonzalez (Caldwell, Idaho) and Jaden Griggs (Orondo, Wash.).
“It was a little bit of a blanket approach this first year, but obviously we’ve got some specific holes to fill as well,” said Citowicki, who loses center back Taryn Miller, the Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a junior and two-time first-team all-league pick.
“Losing Taryn hurts, so we needed to find a center back who can step in. And obviously we had to find goal-scorers.”
Indeed: Montana has ranked in the bottom half of the league statistics in that category the last two seasons. The Grizzlies scored just four goals through their first 10 matches this past season before getting on an offensive roll late, the key to success for a team that was already salty defensively.
“For two years now this team has struggled in front of the net,” added Citowicki. “I’m excited we’ll be adding Emme and Lizzy, and I wanted to add someone with some speed like Jaden. She scored a lot of goals in high school and is very dangerous.
“We’ve really solidified some things. It’s going to be a fun group. They have everything I want for people in this program for the future. They’re going to help build upon the foundation that was laid this year and steer the program in the direction I want it going, so it’s an important group for us.”
Even when Montana had just one win going into October, Citowicki stuck to his belief that people remember teams for what they do in the postseason, not August and September.
The Grizzlies reached that goal — the postseason — grabbing the fifth of six spots to the Big Sky tournament. They then proceeded to win as if they’d been doing it all along, like it was something they expected to do. Such is the power of belief.
They won three games in five days, advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011 and along the way proved Citowicki to be correct. The season will be looked at as a huge success.
“We don’t have to wait for the proof. We had one of the most successful runs ever in the tournament and the belief now within the program is that we can do anything. And we want more,” said Citowicki.
“It was really exciting. It has me stoked to get up there. I can’t stop thinking about it,” said Fernandez of Montana’s postseason run and the idea of becoming a Grizzly. Added Haustein, “It’s exciting to know that I’m going to be part of a program that’s elevating. I’m super pumped.”
Two recruits speaking for all.
Kennedi Christ (Midfielder/Encinitas, Calif./La Costa Canyon HS/Albion SC DA)
Why Christ picked the Grizzlies: Big-game atmosphere, the coaching staff and Montana is beautiful.
Citowicki on Christ: Kennedi brings a big, physical presence to our midfield. She is the type of player who can win balls and distribute and shoot well from distance. It is clear she has all the physical attributes necessary to be successful in addition to a great mentality. I am sure she will do very well with us.
Emme Fernandez (Forward/Van Alstyne, Texas/Van Alstyne HS/Dallas Sting ECNL)
Why Fernandez picked the Grizzlies: There really isn’t a reason not to want to be a Griz. The coaching staff is very family-orientated and I love that. The way the coaches view what the relationship of the team should be and the fundamentals that make up a successful unit have me extremely excited to play soccer there. The town of Missoula gives off the small-town vibe I am used to. I have never felt more home-away-from-home. Since my sophomore year I knew Montana is where I want to be.
Citowicki on Fernandez: Emme is a strong, powerful attacking player who will really help us over the coming years. She is the type of forward who has the technique to cause problems for defenders and additionally she has a will to win that is going to be very hard to stop. She has both Development Academy and ENCL experience, and she’s confident and fun to be around. We can’t wait to have her at Montana.
Lizzy Gonzalez (Forward/Caldwell, Idaho/Vallivue HS/Boise Timbers Thorns ECNL)
Why Gonzalez picked the Grizzlies: I had an unexplainable draw to the University of Montana. I knew from the moment I set foot on campus that I belong there. I toured many universities before Montana but not a single one since. I left my heart there, and I set a goal to do everything in my power to ensure that I would become part of the Griz family!
Citowicki on Gonzalez: Lizzy is a strong, attacking player who will help us put things together in the attacking third. She makes smart decisions, finds great spaces for herself and is a good finisher. I am sure that she has what it takes to develop into a solid goal-scorer in the Big Sky.
Jaden Griggs (Forward/Orondo, Wash./Wenatchee HS/Issaquah Gunners)
Why Griggs picked the Grizzlies: Montana felt like a home away from home. The people and coaches have all been very friendly. Montana is a great fit for me. I’m looking forward to being a part of a great soccer program and school.
Citowicki on Griggs: Jaden is a quick, skillful winger who will add pace to our attack. She is the type of player who thrives in 1v1 situations and in open space. Best of all she has a good track record of scoring important goals over the course of her career. I’m sure that we can get the same out of her at Montana.
Sydney Haustein (Midfielder/Las Vegas, Nev./Shattuck St. Mary’s School/Shattuck St. Mary’s DA)
Why Haustein picked the Grizzlies: It’s where I feel I belong and has everything I was looking for.
Citowicki on Haustein: Sydney is a smart midfielder who has done very well at the Development Academy level for her club team. She understands space, is comfortable with the ball at her feet and can break pressure and play quality passes. Syd has a lot potential. We look forward to helping her become a great player in the Big Sky.
Allie Larsen (Defender/Louisville, Colo./Monarch HS/Colorado Rush DA)
Why Larsen picked the Grizzlies: The moment I stepped foot on the University of Montana campus, I knew I wanted to be a Griz. It was the perfect distance from home, as I knew I wanted to go try something new in college and Montana was the perfect fit. Montana has an awesome soccer program, and Missoula reminded me of my small town that I’ve grown up in. Plus the mountains surrounding Missoula in every direction makes it incomparable. The soccer and school together are a dream. I cannot wait to officially be a Griz!
Citowicki on Larsen: Allie is someone who popped onto my radar as soon as I got the job in June, and with each event we saw her, she impressed us more and more. Technically she is solid, she possesses a tremendous work ethic and her ceiling is very high. Allie will play in the backline for us, and we can’t wait to get her here next fall.
Molly Massman (Midfielder/San Luis Obispo, Calif./San Luis Obispo HS/Central Coast United)
Why Massman picked the Grizzlies: I chose to become a Griz because everyone I met while visiting was enthusiastically invested in whatever aspect of the university in which they were involved. Whether it was the professors involved in academics or coaches, trainers and players focused on the athletics, they all brought an overwhelming excitement to being a Griz that helped me make my decision. The coaches for the soccer program were also extremely inviting, friendly and so motivated, making me super excited to become a part of a program that emanated such passion. Everything about Montana contributed to why I became a Griz. I am so thrilled to be a part of the team soon!
Citowicki on Massman: Molly will further reinforce our midfield with her size and ability. One of her greatest assets is seeing things develop and picking the right moment to make a killer pass. She comes into our program somewhat under the radar, but I have no doubt that she has all the tools necessary to be a good player in the Big Sky.
Marley Muelhaupt (Defender/West Des Moines, Iowa/Shattuck St. Mary’s School/Shattuck St. Mary’s DA)
Why Muelhaupt picked the Grizzlies: I fell in love with the campus and the area. I love how it is surrounded by endless mountains. The coaching staff is amazing and I love the message that the coaches are trying to convey, not only as a player on the field, but also off the field. The team is filled with players who work hard and stay positive. It’s the perfect environment for me to be in for the next four years of my life!
Citowicki on Muelhaupt: The first time I saw Marley, I was hooked. She can play numerous positions across the backline or in the midfield. She is a great athlete, good with the ball at her feet, ambitious going forward and very strong in a tackle. She has the personality and ability to be a great player in the Big Sky.
Elizabeth Todd (Goalkeeper/Oakland, Calif./Bishop O’Dowd HS/Pleasanton Rage ECNL)
Why Todd picked the Grizzlies: I chose to be a Griz because of the strong soccer program, beautiful campus, nice people and the location. I love Montana and the environment surrounding the campus. I can do everything I love to do there, like hiking, skiing, exploring and seeing wildlife. I can picture myself going to the school, improving as a player and person, and most of all, having a great college experience.
Citowicki on Todd: Elizabeth is someone who has been on my radar for some time. She is the type of goalkeeper who does a lot of the simple things exceptionally well and when necessary she can make the big, flashy save. She has a fantastic work ethic. I look forward to having her join our goalkeeper group and challenge for playing time.
Jordan Wood (Defender/Yorba Linda, Calif./Valencia HS/Orange County Surf SC DA)
Why Wood picked the Grizzlies: I chose to be a Griz because of the amazing coaching staff and the family-like atmosphere. I loved the feel of the town and how involved everyone is in Griz athletics. The beautiful campus and the opportunities the school provides is what originally attracted me to the school. I have always loved the state, so I felt that it was the right place for me.
Citowicki on Wood: Jordan had the experience of playing for one of the most competitive DA teams in the nation and knows what it takes to be successful at a high level. She will play in the backline for us and has the ability to be quite successful because of her solid technique and game IQ. We look forward to having her join the program and thrive in our environment.