(Editor’s note: Story by Griz communications)
MISSOULA – The Montana soccer team will embark upon its first Big Sky Conference road trip this week when the Grizzlies head south for matches against Idaho State and Weber State.
Montana will face the Bengals at 4 p.m. on Friday in Pocatello and the Wildcats on Sunday at 1 p.m. in Ogden.
The Grizzlies opened their league schedule with back-to-back home weekends, hosting Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington and Idaho.
Where they stand (Montana): The Grizzlies (1-6-4, 0-1-2 BSC) are coming off a winless September (0-3-4) and will play four of their final six Big Sky matches on the road. Montana is sitting in ninth place in the league standings with two points, ahead of only Southern Utah.
Where they stand (Idaho State): The Bengals (2-9-0, 1-3-0 BSC) have been outscored this season 37-11 and lost at Sacramento State and Portland State last weekend by a combined score of 6-1. Idaho State picked up its lone league win with a 1-0 home victory over Southern Utah.
Where they stand (Weber State): The Wildcats (5-3-4, 3-0-1 BSC), who are coming off a 5-1-3 month of September, are rolling and sit atop the Big Sky standings with 10 points. Weber State is coming off a road sweep of Portland State and Sacramento State and has a league-best 0.78 goals-against average.
What’s at stake: This will be a first for the Big Sky Conference, with a league makeup of 10 soccer-playing schools and six of them making the tournament, but two previous seasons — 2012 and ’13 — can provide a guide for what it will take to make the postseason.
In both of those seasons it was a four-team tournament field but with 10 teams in the league, the same number as this year. The sixth-place team in 2013 had 10 points, while in 2012 that team had 12.
Those teams missed out on the tournament field but with six making it this season, let’s average it out and use 11 points as the projected cut to be traveling to Ogden, Utah, later this month for the Big Sky tournament.
That means Montana needs to find a minimum of nine points over the next three weekends, which could be achieved by picking up three wins in its final six league matches. With only two more home matches, at least one of those wins would need to come on the road.
Most recently (Montana): The Grizzlies picked up two points at home last week, playing to a 0-0 draw with Eastern Washington on Friday and a 1-1 deadlock with Idaho on Sunday. And the matches were that even: the Eagles and Vandals took 33 shots to the Grizzlies’ 32.
Most recently (Idaho State): The Bengals were in a 0-0 deadlock at the half in both of their road matches last weekend, at Sacramento State and Portland State, but got outscored 6-1 in the second half. ISU’s lone goal came with 30 seconds left in regulation on Sunday against the Vikings.
Most recently (Weber State): It’s rare for any team to sweep the Portland State-Sacramento State road trip, but the Wildcats did last weekend. They broke a 1-1 deadlock at PSU on Friday with a goal in the 73rd minute and scored the match’s lone goal in the 53rd minute on Sunday against the Hornets.
History (Montana-Idaho State): The Grizzlies lead the all-time series 12-8-4 and are 5-2-3 against the Bengals since 2009. Montana is 3-4-3 against Idaho State in games played in Pocatello, including last season when the Grizzlies lost 1-0 on a goal in the 23rd minute despite outshooting the Bengals 24-10.
History (Montana-Weber State): The Grizzlies lead the all-time series 14-12-3 but have gone just 3-8-1 against the Wildcats in Ogden, where they have not won since 2006. Montana ended a five-match losing streak against Weber State on its home field with a 1-1 draw last year. Dani Morris scored for Montana.
The state of Montana:
Gifted three straight matches at home to open league — albeit against three of the better programs in the Big Sky — the Grizzlies could only amass two points, which equals the number of goals they scored against Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington and Idaho.
That has Montana facing an uphill battle if it wants to collect enough points to make the Big Sky tournament for the fifth straight year and 17th overall.
“Ties are annoying, especially when you feel like you’re playing well,” said first-year coach Chris Citowicki. “The good news is we’re picking up points, and you’ve got to be picking up points against the good teams in the conference.
“And then you need to beat the teams you’re supposed to beat and pick up what you can on the side.”
With just a single win on the season for the Grizzlies, it feels a bit disingenuous to write that there is any team Montana is “supposed to beat,” but they are certainly sitting there on the schedule for the team picked third in the preseason coaches’ poll. As long as the goals start coming with more frequency.
The Grizzlies have just five this season through 11 matches and have yet to score more than one in a match. They’ve allowed 14 but they’ve also been outshot only 151-142, which is less than a shot per match. It’s not an issue of opportunities. It’s a matter of finishing.
“We’re creating lots of chances. We’re defending really well. I know we’ve been saying this all the time, but I feel like it’s only a matter of time before it starts happening,” said Citowicki.
Perhaps Sunday was a start. After falling behind 1-0 — a sizeable obstacle for a team averaging less than half a goal per match — Montana rallied to force a 1-1 draw with Idaho when Kennedy Yost converted a penalty kick in the 88th minute.
“What I loved about the Idaho match is that when we went down (a goal early in the second half), there was an actual response, both emotional and physical,” said Citowicki. “They said, We’re not going to take this, and we’re going to get our way back into it.
“That was very satisfying for me, for us to come back so late in the game and create the chances we did in overtime.”
Lost in the win-less results of the past month has been the play of Montana’s defense, which has produced four shutouts in the team’s last eight matches
Taryn Miller, last fall’s Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, may be the face of the unit, but it’s goalkeeper Claire Howard who is the acrobatic last line of defense.
She made a number of highlight-reel saves last weekend against the Eagles and Vandals, none as large as the potential game-winner she extended to swat away against Eastern Washington with less than two minutes left in the second overtime.
In a weekend with plenty to choose from, Howard says that was the most memorable for her, “just because we always say Eastern is our biggest rival in the conference,” she said.
“But it was a save I felt confident about. Everybody thinks it was this great thing, but it’s a credit to my teammates that they challenge me every week in practice with those kinds of shots. When it comes time to make those saves in a game, I feel like I’m super prepared.”
Whatever was gained from the weekend — in a more intangible sense than the two points the Grizzlies collected — will go on the road with Montana as it faces matches at Idaho State and Weber State.
In both matches this past weekend, the Grizzlies were put on their heels early by the Eagles and Vandals. Idaho State, in particular, will try to do the same thing on Friday.
“First and foremost, Idaho State is going to compete. It’s a team that lives off of energy and competition,” said Citowicki. “They are going to come out flying, and that’s something we have to be ready to match.”
Friday’s match will pit the league’s lowest-scoring team (Montana has five goals through 11 matches) with the team allowing more than any other in the Big Sky (Idaho State has given up 37 in 11 matches, including 10 in a 10-0 loss to BYU).
Two days later Montana will face Weber State, the team sitting atop the league standings. The Wildcats may have lost just once — 1-0 at Arizona State — in their last nine matches, but they’ve also only outscored their opponents this season 13-10, meaning they are winning the close ones.
Since losing 2-0 to Utah to open the season, Weber State has played in just one game, its 5-2 home victory over Southern Utah, that has not been a tie or one-goal outcome.
They have been outshot for the season and have allowed 26 more corner kicks than they’ve created, but the Wildcats just keep winning (or tying, which is better than losing).
“On Sunday we’ll face a team that loves to possess the ball and move it around,” said Citowicki. “Watching them last year, I didn’t understand why they weren’t winning more games with what they were doing.
“Now it seems like it’s clicked, and they are winning a lot of games. It will be a tricky game for us, but I think we can compete with anyone.”
Weber State freshman midfielder Olivia Barton leads the Big Sky in assists with five. Senior forward Morgan Quarnberg is tied for second in the league with four goals.
Though Montana ranks last in the Big Sky in goals per game (0.45), the Grizzlies have three players ranked in the top six in the league in shots. Kennedy Yost (second, 2.64), McKenzie Warren (third, 2.60) and Alexa Coyle (sixth, 2.09) are all taking more than two shots per match.
Defensively, Howard ranks third in save percentage (.781), fourth in goals-against average (1.16).
Friday in the Big Sky: Montana at Idaho State, Northern Colorado at Weber State, Sacramento State at Southern Utah, Portland State at Northern Arizona
Non-Montana match to monitor: Northern Colorado at Weber State, two teams that are a combined 6-0-1 through two weekends of league matches. The Bears lead the Big Sky in goals (1.75/g), the Wildcats rank first in goals-against average (0.78/g).
Sunday in the Big Sky: Montana at Weber State, Northern Colorado at Idaho State, Portland State at Southern Utah, Sacramento State at Northern Arizona, Eastern Washington at Idaho
Non-Montana match to monitor: Sacramento State at Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks, at 2-0-1, are also unbeaten in league and should be coming off a win on Friday night over Portland State.
Upcoming: The season’s final home matches, when Montana hosts Southern Utah and Northern Arizona next week at South Campus Stadium.
The Grizzlies’ Big Sky schedule concludes on Oct. 19 and 21 with road matches at Portland State and Sacramento State. Their regular-season schedule comes to an end the following weekend with a road match at Cal Baptist.