(Editor’s note: story by Montana Sports Information)
OGDEN, UT – It was a matchup destined to have limited moments, so when Montana sent a penalty kick over the crossbar in the 50th minute in a scoreless quarterfinal matchup against Northern Arizona at the Big Sky Conference Championship in Ogden, Utah, on Wednesday, it felt like an opportunity lost and huge blow.
To everybody, that is, but the Grizzlies.
Less than five minutes later, Janessa Fowler took a beautiful feed in the box from Taylor Hansen and scored what would be the game-winner as No. 5 Montana knocked off No. 4 Northern Arizona 1-0 to advance to a semifinal matchup against top-seeded Weber State at 3 p.m. on Friday.
“There was never a feeling of, Oh, no, now here comes their opportunity,” said first-year coach Chris Citowicki of Taryn Miller’s missed penalty kick. “We refused to let that get to us and refused to let that get to Taryn. If the sideline gets quiet, if we’re awkward about it, then it gets in her head.
“What I loved was our response to missing the PK. It was just a matter of time. I’m thrilled we got it done.”
That Fowler played hero in the manner she did — attacking up front — would have come as a surprise a few weeks ago, playing as she was at holding midfielder. But Citowicki moved Fowler to center forward a few weeks back, and it paid off in a big way on Wednesday.
Hansen played the ball up the right side and led Fowler, who was charging on a diagonal from the opposite side, into the box, where she ran up on a 50-50 ball with a Northern Arizona defender.
Except that situation is never 50-50 when Fowler is involved. She controlled the ball first and shot it past first-team All-Big Sky goalkeeper Taryn Benham for a goal that felt like it was coming Montana’s way.
After Montana gave up four mostly harmless shots to Northern Arizona in the opening seven minutes, the Grizzlies would out-shoot the Big Sky’s top statistical defense 15-3 over the final 80-plus minutes.
The Lumberjacks had lost just once in their previous nine matches entering the tournament, with seven shutouts, and had allowed just one goal in the 888 minutes prior to Fowler’s winner, but Montana made Northern Arizona look ordinary.
“When the draw came up, I didn’t want them because they defend so well. To break them down and get the opportunity to put it away was great,” said Citowicki.
“But we’re peaking right now at the right time. Our entire sideline was on fire today and that mirrored the enthusiasm we had on the field. We were ready for this and just overpowered them.”
Northern Arizona took just seven shots in the match and generated only two corner kicks, but that does nothing to minimize sophomore goalkeeper Claire Howard’s 15th career shutout.
In fact it was a play that didn’t even show up in the statistics that had Citowicki raving after the match about his keeper’s feel for the game.
In the final minute of the first half, a Northern Arizona cross from near the left end line was mis-kicked. What was supposed to be a setup pass into the box started to bend toward the goal.
There was Howard, named honorable-mention All-Big Sky on Tuesday, reading the ball perfectly and punching it out of harm’s way.
“How she’s not more than honorable mention is a mystery to me,” said Citowicki. “The save she made at the end of the first half, with the mis-hit cross that was going in, for her to pull that off the line was just incredible. Having that kind of presence in goal is amazing.”
Even down a goal, Northern Arizona would only take three shots in the second half, putting only one on goal and not taking any shots in the final 15 minutes as Montana controlled the ball and ran out the clock.
Now, a new challenge and an even bigger one: facing the Wildcats on their home field on Friday.
Weber State has lost just twice the last two months, but there is this: the Wildcats have given up five goals their last two matches and won’t have played for a full two weeks when Friday’s second semifinal kicks off.
Will that help or hurt the home team? And how will Weber State play as the favorite? Questions that will only be answered in real time on Friday afternoon.
“Weber is outstanding, one of the best teams we’ve seen all year, with the way they move the ball and control the game, but this is playoff soccer,” said Citowicki, whose team lost 2-1 at Weber State during the regular season.
“When there is pressure involved, mistakes start to happen. It will be a tough one, but I’m really looking forward to it.”
In Friday’s opening semifinal at noon, No. 3 Northern Colorado, a 3-1 winner over No. 6 Eastern Washington on Wednesday, will face No. 2 Idaho.
The semifinal winners will meet on Sunday at noon, with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line.