(Editor’s note: Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA – “It will be a tough one but a fun one” is how second-year Griz soccer coach Chris Citowicki describes his team’s 2019 schedule that was finalized recently.
Montana will play 12 of its 19 regular-season matches on the road, including its first four to open the fall. Even the Grizzlies’ league schedule is tilted that direction, with five of nine Big Sky matches away from home.
The 10-match nonconference portion of the schedule has a season-opening trip to North Dakota, two road matches against Pac-12 opponents and a trip to the Bay Area to face San Francisco and Saint Mary’s in the lead-up to Montana’s Big Sky openers, which, fittingly, take place on the road.
Montana will open its home schedule by hosting UC Santa Barbara, which is coming off a 13-win season, on Friday, Sept. 6.
The following weekend the Grizzlies will face Cal Poly and Wyoming at South Campus Stadium. The Cowgirls won 12 matches last fall and tied for the Mountain West Conference regular-season title.
“I like the philosophy of, let’s load up the nonconference and really test ourselves and iron out the wrinkles and get through the kinks. Then we’ll be ready to play when it really matters,” said Citowicki.
The image that stands out from last season is the Grizzlies hoisting the Big Sky Conference trophy over their heads after winning three matches in five days in Ogden to clinch the program’s first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2011.
But it took a lot of growing pains to reach that point, as could have been expected under a coach who didn’t arrive on campus until early June.
Montana entered October with just one win through its first 11 matches, with only five goals scored. But the focus was always on the postseason and what it would take to be playing at a high level once it arrived.
Needing results on the team’s final weekend of league matches, essentially making it the start of the postseason, the Grizzlies got it done, sweeping the Portland State-Sacramento State road trip by a combined 4-1 score.
That carried over to the Big Sky tournament, where Montana won three matches in five days, all by shutout, all over higher-seeded teams. The process had worked. The Grizzlies were the best team in Ogden that week, or at least the team playing the best when everything was on the line.
“We went through very stressful times in nonconference last season, but when we had to win those games against Portland State and Sacramento State, we were ready,” said Citowicki. “We figured it out at the right time because we were tested and we were ready. We got it done when it mattered.
“This is another schedule that should prepare us for everything that’s coming.”
The season opens with matches at North Dakota and North Dakota State, which seems straightforward enough. But there is more to the story.
Citowicki (and assistant coach Danielle Mendez as well) was on UND’s staff for the 2017 season, before he was hired by Montana. Not only will it be a return for Citowicki, but North Dakota will be playing its first match on its reconstructed field.
Bronson Field underwent such an extensive makeover that the Fighting Hawks played their home matches last fall at East Grand Forks High, across the Red River in Minnesota.
And both teams on that season-opening road trip are coming off nine-win seasons.
“I wouldn’t say it will be emotional, but the first one will mean more to me than some of our other matches because it’s going back to the school I came from,” said Citowicki. “It will be their first match on their new field, so it should be a fun game.”
The next road trip will take Montana to Washington State and Gonzaga. The Cougars, who defeated Montana in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, are a familiar opponent. The Bulldogs are coming off a 10-win season.
Montana will make its home debut against the Gauchos on Sept. 6.
“They are going to be very competitive, but there are no easy games for us. We’ve got six very difficult games in a row, which doesn’t make it easy for us, but I do enjoy the challenge,” said Citowicki.
“It’s about playing good teams to prepare yourself for what matters most. Can you win in conference play and get into playoffs, and once you get there, are you ready to compete and win when it matters?”
Montana will bookend the weekend of its home opener with its second road game against a Pac-12 team, this one at California.
“It will be good to play two very different Pac-12 teams,” said Citowicki. “You’ve got Washington State, which will show you that elite athleticism and physicality, and Cal, which tries to move the ball a lot more.
“You’ve got two contrasting styles that will really open our eyes to what that elite level looks like.”
Montana will host Cal Poly on Friday, Sept. 13, the first meeting between the programs since 2003, and Wyoming two days later.
The Grizzlies played the Cowgirls to a 0-0 draw last fall in Laramie, a result that took on added significance as the season went along. Wyoming ended the year unbeaten in nine home matches.
Montana will play a return match at San Francisco, one year after falling 2-0 to the Dons in Missoula, then remain in the Bay Area for a match at Saint Mary’s. It will be the Grizzlies’ first match against the Gaels since 2005.
Montana will open league with road matches at Idaho and Eastern Washington before welcoming defending regular-season champion Weber State and Idaho State to Missoula.
The Bengals are one of two Big Sky teams, along with Northern Arizona, who will be playing for first-year coaches.
Montana will play at NAU and Southern Utah, host Sacramento State and Portland State, then wrap up the regular season at Northern Colorado, the team Montana defeated 1-0 in the Big Sky tournament championship match in November.
Greeley will also be the site of this year’s Big Sky tournament, meaning Montana hopes to be making a pair of trips to Northern Colorado in a short window of time, the second one lasting through championship Sunday.
“This is a good schedule for this group, especially for the younger ones coming in. They’ll get enough games to get tested,” said Citowicki, whose current roster of 29 for the fall includes 11 incoming freshmen. Twenty-four of the 29 players will be underclassmen in eligibility next season.
“For a lot of kids, it will be their first time (playing at Northern Colorado). Hopefully we’ll make that our field like we made Weber our field. Hopefully the same thing happens again.”