(Editor's note: MSUB Athletics release)
BILLINGS – Keeping their playoff hopes alive on Thursday afternoon at Yellowjacket Field, the Montana State University Billings women’s soccer team prevailed 2-1 over visiting Western Oregon University in Great Northwest Athletic Conference action.
The Yellowjackets received goals from Liberty Palmer and Haylee Gunter within the opening 20 minutes of play, and withstood the Wolves’ lone strike at the end of the first half. “I was happy to see us score early, and that is something we have really been working and yearning for,” MSUB head coach Stephen Cavallo commented on the quick 2-0 advantage. “In the second half it was just kind of about desire and who wanted it more, and this was a good team effort from us today.”
MSUB improved to 6-7-3 overall and 3-6-2 in conference play, upping its season point total to 11. With three matches left to play in the regular season, MSUB moved within four points of the fourth-place slot, which is occupied by Simon Fraser University who plays later Thursday night. The top-four teams at the end of the regular season advance to the GNAC Championships, which run Nov. 11-13 at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. “We just kept fighting, and we had fun with it too,” said freshman midfielder Taylor Gertsch. “We were all fighting together to win this game. Coming in this week we had some really good practices and were working hard. That showed in this game, and now we are going to be ready for Saturday.”
Twins Hailee Gertsch and Taylor Gertsch were key difference makers in the match, helping anchor the defensive unit and providing a calming presence through a tense final 20 minutes of play to see out the victory. “They were phenomenal,” Cavallo commented on the twins. “Neither of them will end up on the score sheet, but they were exceptional. They have been improving all season, and every time I feel like they have a great game they show that there is even more to it. I don’t think we win this game today without them.”
Western Oregon fell to 5-8-2 overall and moved to 4-5-2 in conference play with the defeat, remaining at 14 points in the league standings to occupy the fifth-place position. “We got two early on in the first half and that was great,” said Hailee Gertsch. “It took a lot of pressure off the back line. We just kept at it, and tried to hold them as long as possible.”
Palmer didn’t waste any time scoring her team-leading fifth goal of the year, as she put the hosts ahead in just the fifth minute of the match. Left back Sydney Wate made an outstanding read on an errant pass towards the middle of the field, beating a WOU attacker to the ball and touching a pass through the back line. Palmer displayed her strength, holding off a defender, and tucking a left-footed strike from the left corner of the box inside the far post. “It was a really gutsy performance from her,” Cavallo commented on Palmer. “We have been coaching her on trusting her left foot more, so it was awesome to see her get her goal that way.”
Emerging into a GNAC Freshman of the Year candidate as the season has progressed, Palmer leads all freshmen in the conference with five goals – a figure which is tied for fourth-most among any GNAC player as of Thursday’s games.
Persistence paid off for Gunter in the 20th minute, as she created space for herself before having a shot from the top of the box blocked by the WOU back line. The MSUB senior carefully touched the carom with her left foot, sending a high-arcing shot just above the reach of WOU goalkeeper Darien Walton and just below the crossbar to make the score 2-0. “Haylee has been working through a really difficult injury this whole season, and so I’m really happy she was able to get the goal today,” Cavallo commented on Gunter’s first finish of the fall. “She has been working really hard and has put a lot of pressure on herself, and it was great to see her finish one with her left foot.”
An ominous breakaway for the Wolves nearly got the visitors on the scoreboard with 18 minutes before the break, when the dangerous Piper Matson broke away from her mark and ran freely into the box with the ball. MSUB goalkeeper Clare Keenan came off her line and just got a piece of Matson’s low strike to deflect it wide of the left goal post.
WOU took advantage of a failed clearance just four minutes before the break, as Kaytlyn Larsen tucked a left-footed strike into the back of the net from just outside the six-yard box in the 42nd minute. The finish came directly after another diving save by Keenan, but the WOU substitute was positioned well to pounce on the loose ball and pull her team within one.
The Yellowjackets continued their relentless attack coming out of the halftime break, and created numerous chances throughout the second half. The 66th minute marked MSUB’s best chance for a third goal, when Palmer tested second-half goalkeeper Olivia Holdenried with a shot that was knocked back into the box. Jordan Roe was there to put the rebound on frame, but WOU midfielder Hannah Rispler was there to save the day knocking the attempt off the goal line.
Hailee Gertsch was a model of calmness in the waning minutes, helping the ‘Jackets close the door and secure the win. She expertly used her body to draw a foul on a sloppy pass that would have wound up in a clear breakaway for the Wolves in the 86th minute. Moments later, on a long through ball from the midfield, she wisely nodded a header pass back to Keenan while feeling the pressure of two Wolves attackers on their way to the box. “The key is just to stay calm and not to panic,” Hailee Gertsch commented on her late game heroics. “If you panic, a lot of the simple things can go wrong.”
Palmer and Roe led the ‘Jackets, who out-shot the Wolves 17-16, with four shots apiece while the former and Gunter each had two attempts on target. WOU’s Chloe Smith led all players in the game with six shots, while Matson had five including three on target.
The home regular-season finale awaits MSUB on Saturday, with a noon kickoff scheduled against Saint Martin’s University. Live video for the Senior Day match will be available online here [youtube.com] and live statistics will be available online here [msubsports.com].