(Editor’s note: Story by Montana Sports Information)
OGDEN, UT – For the second time in three days, the Montana soccer team knocked off a higher-seeded opponent, and now it’s on to the Big Sky Conference championship match for the surging Grizzlies.
No. 5 Montana, attacking from the opening touch, scored twice in the match’s first 32 minutes and never gave top-seeded Weber State a chance, defeating the Wildcats on their home field in Ogden, 2-0 on Friday afternoon.
The Grizzlies (6-8-6), unbeaten in their last six matches against league opponents, advance to face a team that’s just as hot in Northern Colorado on Sunday at noon, with a spot to the NCAA tournament on the line.
The No. 3 Bears defeated No. 6 Eastern Washington 3-1 on Wednesday in the quarterfinals and took out No. 2 Idaho 3-0 on Friday.
“It’s going to be two amazing teams,” said coach Chris Citowicki. “I’m really looking forward to it. I want to be challenged against the best teams, so let’s go.
“This is what the final should be, two very entertaining teams going up against each other.”
Facing a team that prizes possession and ball-control above all else — outside of scoring goals — Citowicki knew his team’s best chance was to get after the Wildcats early on Friday.
The Grizzlies did, and that led to a goal in the ninth minute.
With what felt like Montana’s entire team pressing the Wildcats in their own end, a turnover made its way to Taylor Hansen in the center of the field. She found Alexa Coyle, back to goal, who spun to her right from 20 yards out and lined one into the net, just under the crossbar.
“You need to press against a team like Weber. If you sit off them, they are so good on the ball, they’re just going to move it all the time,” Citowicki said. “We did exactly what we wanted to do.”
Montana made it 2-0 in the 32nd minute when Janessa Fowler, whose career is peaking before our eyes, took a long feed into the box from Taryn Miller.
Her own spin shot didn’t have the pace that Coyle’s did, but Weber State’s goalkeeper was shielded by a teammate. She never saw the ball and never had a chance.
There were nearly 60 minutes still to be played, but it felt like the match had already been decided. The underdog came out swinging, landing body after body blow, and the favored heavyweight wasn’t just on the ropes. It was down on the mat.
“They were in such a difficult position. They were the No. 1 seed on their home field and had a tremendous season but hadn’t played for two weeks,” said Citowicki. “That’s why I wanted to go out and bring the energy. If we came out flying, they had no hope, and they didn’t. It was done.
“I think if it had stayed 0-0, their confidence would have eventually seeped in and they would have gotten over their nerves, but as soon as we scored that first goal, it was all nerves for them at that point.”
Reached via text on Friday morning, Citowicki didn’t come across as stressed about the moment or worried about the opponent or even concerned about how his team would react after playing a tough match against Northern Arizona on Wednesday.
He was oddly calm, surprisingly confident. And he had good reason to be. His intuition has rarely failed him.
“I had a gut feeling about this one. I’ve had them my entire life, and they are almost always right,” said Citowicki. “My gut is telling me not to be worried about anything right now.”
Weber State may have had the No. 1 seed, but that meant little. Northern Colorado will have something else: some amazing momentum.
After falling behind the Eagles 1-0 on Wednesday, the Bears, under 20th-year coach Tim Barrera, have scored six unanswered goals. It’s a team that won the 2015 championship in Moscow, Idaho, and played in last year’s title match against Eastern Washington in Cheney. After knocking off Montana.
It’s a team that’s been there and done that. And is on its way to doing it again. That’s where Montana comes in. They both want the same thing, the team that can’t stop scoring and the team that hasn’t allowed a goal in two tournament matches. Game on.
“Tim is an amazing coach. He’s been in this conference for a while and has an incredible record and incredible history,” said Citowicki. “He’s the type of coach I look up to and say, I want to be like that.”
Of course the teams have already played once. Montana took a 1-0 lead into the final minutes of regulation in their matchup in Missoula to open league back in September.
Then Maddie Roberts tied it in the 88th minute and Mariel Gutierrez won it for the Bears in the fifth minute of the second overtime.
Citowicki was clearly agitated as he left the field that day. Only one thing was going to make it all better. He was already looking ahead, not at his team’s next opponent but for a chance to make things right against the team they’d just lost to.
“I want a rematch. The players want a rematch. I can’t wait to have another shot at them in (the Big Sky tournament),” he said that Sunday afternoon before he’d even walked off the field. “Hopefully we get it.”
His and his players’ wishes have been granted. It only feels right that Montana’s path to a championship has to go through the Bears.
Either Northern Colorado’s postseason roll will continue or Montana will make things right and advance to its first NCAA tournament since 2011.