MISSOULA — When Claire Howard first joined the Montana women's soccer team back in 2016, her biggest goal was just getting the chance to play.
If she could start every year, that would be an added bonus. But for the Santa Rosa, California, native, simply getting on the field was the goal she wanted to achieve and start with once she stepped on campus.
Even she didn't foresee the career she's ultimately carved out with the Griz, as Howard has left a number of records shattered in her wake as UM's standout goalkeeper en route to leading Montana into the NCAA Tournament this coming Wednesday against South Carolina.
"It was a program that was already very decorated," said Howard, who had never been to Montana prior to joining UM. "They were winning games and competing for championships and that’s something that I knew I wanted to be a part of, and then everything fell into place of allowing me to come play here and the rest is just history. It’s been an incredible five years."
Howard reset the Big Sky Conference career shutout mark back on March 28 against Portland State, and has continued to add to that total throughout the season where she now owns 32 shutouts in her Griz career.
The consummate teammate, Howard credits those around her for being the reason behind that success.
"It's only possible because of them. (The ball) has to get through 10 people to even get to me and oftentimes I don’t even face that many shots," she said "That’s just such a testament to the players and the environment that I’ve been in for so long and it truly is like group awards that these records are being set by."
Along with her conference and school record of career shutouts, Howard also owns the UM record for minutes played by a goalkeeper at 6,742 minutes and 22 seconds, a number that will increase when UM and South Carolina play on Wednesday.
That match will be her 73rd in goal for UM, and she's racked up 248 career saves during that stretch. For her efforts this season -- which includes six shutouts and 26 saves -- Howard was named the Big Sky Conference goalkeeper of the year, making her just the second woman in program history to achieve that honor.
Even head coach Chris Citowicki remembers the first time he saw Howard play and his reaction when he got the chance to coach her.
"I was at the University of North Dakota. I had played against her and realized that she was absolutely amazing and then when I got this job I just couldn’t believe it. ‘Wow, I get Claire Howard for that many years?’ Just incredible," said Citowicki, who took over in 2018. "I knew she was very talented and having somebody like that in goal behind the back line is just such a source of confidence for everybody.
"She's got the skill set but she's got a presence. For me, for goalkeeper, when I go recruit, the first thing I look for is, 'Do you have presence? Is there an energy to you, are you a leader, are you a winner? Are you the type of person that can carry the team when you need to?' That's exactly what she has. She has it in spades."
Even more, Howard finished her undergrad degree in 2019 and completed her master's in public administration this spring while competing in her delayed final soccer season.
Now, Howard leads the Grizzlies into the NCAA Tournament for the second time in her career, a milestone that ranks among the top, especially after UM's wait was long due to the postponed season. The Grizzlies last went in 2018. Wednesday's game begins at 4 p.m. Mountain Time in Wilson, North Carolina.
She noted how the extra time with her teammates was special because of the season getting pushed back, and now she's ready to lead them for one final run.
"Fifty percent of my playing career has ended (at the NCAA Tournament) which is a pretty cool feat that most people don’t get to say and just the whole team environment, we truly are a family in this," Howard said. "I wouldn’t have wanted to spend my five years anywhere else."