(Editor's note: MSUB Athletics release)
PORTLAND, Ore. – Liberty Palmer was named the Great Northwest Athletic Conference co-Freshman of the Year, highlighting a cast of five from the Montana State University Billings women’s soccer team to take home all-conference recognition after the 2021 season.
Palmer was a second-team all-conference selection, along with goalkeeper Clare Keenan. Senior Haylee Gunter and second-year freshmen Hailee Gertsch and Sydney Wate were named to the honorable mention all-conference team for the Yellowjackets.
“I am so proud of these five individuals for representing MSUB so well in a conference filled with incredible soccer players,” said MSUB head coach Stephen Cavallo. “Each year we try to further develop our current student athletes and also bring in new members to the team that make us better. It is clear through all of these first time GNAC all-conference team members that we have been able to achieve this.”
Palmer shared the top award for freshmen with Seattle Pacific University’s Lauren Forster, after the two were among the top goal scorers in the conference. The Yellowjacket true freshman netted five goals and one assist for 11 points, while starting 15 matches in her debut collegiate season. Palmer was named the GNAC Player of the Week on Sept. 13, after scoring two goals and adding an assist in a three-game stretch for the Yellowjackets. Palmer’s 48 shots and 2.82 shots per game ranked her fifth in the conference, and her 24 shots on goal were fourth most in the league.
“Liberty Palmer is a difference maker and is fully deserving of this Freshman of the Year award,” Cavallo said. “I am so proud of her because her energy, work ethic, and skill is inspirational to her teammates. She is dynamic and other teams have to try and create game plans to stop her. I cannot wait to see her back on the field again soon as I know that Liberty has so much upside and here at MSUB we are just so grateful to be part of her soccer journey.”
Palmer is the second player in program history to earn the GNAC Freshman of the Year Award, joining soon-to-be Hall of Famer Jaucelyn Richter who won it in her debut season in the fall of 2009. It is the third Freshman of the Year award overall for MSUB, with Mandy Ploskonka winning the 2005 Heartland Conference Freshman of the Year honor.
MSUB’s primary goalkeeper this fall, Keenan started 15 of 19 matches between the posts with a 1.80 goals-against average and a 0.738 save percentage. Keenan’s 74 total saves were third most in the conference and were the ninth-most in MSUB single season history. Keenan posted her first collegiate shutout on Sept. 11, making four saves to help MSUB blank visiting University of Mary 2-0. Keenan is the first Yellowjacket goalkeeper to earn second-team recognition since Aiko Johnson made the second team during the 2012 fall season. “Clare Keenan is the real deal in goal,” said Cavallo. “She kept us in so many games with her fantastic saves and fearless play in goal. She has the ability to make you say ‘wow’ in goal and it is clear I was not the only coach in the conference saying that when they watched her play.”
Fighting through an injury that cost her six matches at the outset of her senior season, Gunter rallied and finished as the team’s top player down the stretch. All of her team-leading six goals were scored in the final two weeks of the season, during which she earned her first career GNAC Player of the Week award after leading the team to a pair of wins in its final two home games of the season. Two of Gunter’s goals counted as game-winners, and the senior captain made a dozen starts. This is the first all-conference award for Gunter, who scored 12 goals while playing in 56 matches with 49 starts since arriving at MSUB in the fall of 2018.
“Haylee Gunter battled so hard all season to return from a very painful injury she suffered in a pre-season match,” Cavallo said. “I will never forget how she ended her GNAC career with six goals in her last four matches. In those last four matches, I think that she finally felt healthy again and was able to show why she deserves conference-wide recognition for her play in a conference full of elite level center midfielders. I am very proud of Haylee as her success came with no shortcuts.”
A second-year freshman, Gertsch was an immediate fixture at center back and led the team with 1,630 minutes played for an average of 85.8 minutes per game on the back line. Gertsch was a crucial part of the defensive unit, starting all but one game on the way to her first all-conference award.
Wate, another second-year freshman, came to life over the second half of the season and was another top defender for the ‘Jackets at the outside back position. Wate played in all 19 matches and started the last 12 games of the year, while providing one assist and playing the full time in four different games. One of her standout efforts was a 110-minute match in a 1-1, double-overtime draw at Western Oregon.
“Hailee Gertsch and Sydney Wate were very consistent for us throughout the GNAC season,” said Cavallo. “Hailee really stepped her game up from last season and was a solid rock for us in the back. Sydney Wate fought through some early season disappointment and really became a lockdown defender on the left side of defense for us. Both of them have such bright futures here and I am excited to continue to watch them grow.”
Seattle Pacific’s Makena Reitz was named the GNAC Player of the Year and the team’s head coach Arby Busey was voted the GNAC Coach of the Year. The Falcons, who won the regular-season title, also had the Defensive Player of the Year in Madison Ibale and Forster joined Palmer as the co-Freshman of the Year. Western Washington University’s Tera Ziemer was named the GNAC Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Texas A&M University.
The Yellowjackets went 7-9-3 overall in 2021 and were 4-8-2 in conference play to take 14 points and finish in sixth place in the standings.