(Editor’s note: Story by the University of Montana)
MISSOULA – First-year Montana soccer coach Chris Citowicki hadn’t even been asked the opening question of his post-match interview on Sunday when he set the tone for what was about to come. “I hope you like brutal honesty,” he said.
It was that kind of day, one of learning, for the Grizzlies, who fell to 0-2 on the season with a 2-0 loss to San Francisco on the final day of the Montana Cup at South Campus Stadium in Missoula.
The Grizzlies played an unorganized, lethargic brand of soccer in the first half, and the halftime score — 2-0 — was the result. It wasn’t just the goals that were the difference over the first 45 minutes. The Dons were better in every facet of the match early on, including the most noticeable: effort.
“You can have the best tactics in the world, but if you don’t try, you’re going to get beat, and that was the problem,” said Citowicki. “The first 45 minutes we were playing at maybe 65 or 70 percent intensity.
“We were not holding the ball up, we were not going through tackles, we were not challenging for balls in the air. We just thought we could show up and win the game. We got the slap we deserved.”
We’ll probably never know what was said in the locker room at halftime, but if we’re lucky we’ll see the effect of that gathering for the next two-plus months. And beyond. Because it was a different team that emerged from behind closed doors.
“I was very happy with the response. Tactics didn’t matter at all. It was just, Are you going to try, and are you going to do your job?” said Citowicki, whose team played a majority of the second half in San Francisco’s end, applying pressure throughout.
“We needed that slap in the face today. If we want to be a successful team, that’s how we have to play from now on. You have to grind. You have to work. We’re never going back to playing how we did in the first half ever again.”
Montana fell behind in the first half partly because of itself, partly because of the play of Samantha Jehnings, who scored six goals last season and already has four through two matches in 2018.
She scored both goals for the Dons in their 2-1 victory over Drake on Friday. On Sunday she opened the scoring in the 19th minute, then added another goal three minutes later, heading in a cross from Izzie Lueken that Montana goalkeeper Claire Howard had no chance of defending.
The weekend trip was Jehnings’ first ever to the state, and she thinks that just might have had something to do with her hot start.
“It could be Montana,” she joked before turning serious. “We just had a game plan. We knew what we wanted to do, and we all executed very well. It showed. We wanted to come out of this weekend 2-0, and we did.”
San Francisco only outshot Montana 6-4 in the first half, but that doesn’t reveal how one-sided the play was. The Grizzlies were scrambling to defend the Dons for most of the opening 45 minutes. On only a handful of occasions did Montana make a serious run in the other direction.
Finally halftime arrived.
“The message at half was pretty simple,” said sophomore forward Alexa Coyle. “We know that wasn’t our best and that we can play better. We hold ourselves to a high standard, and we knew that wasn’t our standard. We knew we needed to raise the level.
“It was a completely different game in the second half.”
Montana created its first corner kick of the season 10 minutes in, and in the 61st minute came the play that could have changed everything. But mere inches kept it from doing so.
Across from Coyle on the left side got past San Francisco goalkeeper Molly Eby and made it to the foot of Griz senior Hallie Widner, who had nothing between her and the net except Don defender Emily Pye.
In her rush to get the shot off before the defense could react, Widner put it close enough to Pye that the sophomore was able to make a kick save, with the ball skittering past the left post.
Montana only outshot San Francisco 4-3 in the second half, but the Grizzlies were on the attack throughout, even though they had nothing in the end, at least on the scoreboard, to show for it.
“It was a completely different game the second half,” Coyle said. “If that’s the way we would have played the first half, it would have been a different game. That first half really taught us a lot of lessons. We saw some fire we haven’t seen yet this season.
“That’s a big thing with sports and soccer in general. You win some and you lose some, but what’s important is that you learn the lessons from the losses.”
Sunday marked the collegiate debut of freshman defender Kendall Furrow, who entered the match in the 38th minute. She started the second half and never left the field. What she provided — a fighter’s mentality — was too valuable to sub out.
“You have kids like Kendall who haven’t stepped on the field at all, and she plays like she’s been playing college soccer for two years. I loved that,” said Citowicki.
Montana will put the lessons learned on Sunday to the test on the road. The Grizzlies will play at Hawaii on Wednesday night and remain there until facing Arizona State on Sunday afternoon in a neutral-site match.
The Rainbow Wahine, who host Bowling Green on Sunday night, are 0-1 after falling at home by a score of 4-0 to Texas A&M on Friday.
Arizona State, which played three exhibition matches, won’t play its first regular-season game until the Sun Devils play at Hawaii on Friday night.