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Montana Grizzlies eye Big Sky Conference soccer title after draw at Northern Colorado

UM at EWU Wednesday for league title
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Posted at 2:22 PM, Oct 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-28 16:22:21-04

(Editor's note: University of Montana athletics release)

GREELEY, Colo. -- The Montana soccer team played to a 1-1 draw at Northern Colorado on Sunday afternoon in Greeley and in the process set up a winner-take-all match at Eastern Washington on Wednesday.

The Eagles dropped their first Big Sky Conference match of the season on Sunday, falling 1-0 at Sacramento State, which created the delightfully simple scenario.

Eastern Washington will go into Wednesday’s match, rescheduled after the original game on Sept. 29 was snowed out, with a 6-1-1 league record and 19 points. Montana (6-5-6, 5-0-3 BSC) has 18 points.

If the Eagles win or draw, they will win the regular-season title and be the No. 1 seed at the Big Sky tournament, which opens on Wednesday, Nov. 6, in Greeley.

If Montana wins, the Grizzlies would claim their first outright Big Sky title since 2014 and just their second since 2000.

“We’re fired up for it. What an opportunity to take first place against a heated rival, and I mean that in the best way possible,” said Griz coach Chris Citowicki.

“Eastern is a very good program. (Coach Chad Bodnar) has done a great job building that machine. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Let’s go to Eastern and see what happens.”

The scenario on Wednesday would have been the same even if Montana had lost on Sunday in Greeley, but the Grizzlies didn’t. And on a day that gave them every reason to.

The temperature was in the upper 20s when the match kicked off, falling snow was ever-present and winds that started as annoying only built throughout the match’s 110 minutes.

It was senior day for the home team, and Northern Colorado was facing for the first time the program that defeated the Bears in the championship match of last year’s Big Sky tournament.

“For us to come up here and play in this weather, with that wind, on senior day and with them throwing everything at us, it’s a good result in the end,” said Citowicki. “I’ll take it.”

The draw extended Montana’s unbeaten streak against league opponents to a Big Sky-record 15 matches, a record the Grizzlies established last Sunday with their home win over Portland State.

Coming off a two-goal performance in Sunday’s 4-0 home win over the Vikings, Rita Lang put the Grizzlies up early in Greeley.

Taking a corner kick in the 14th minute, she bent the ball directly into the goal. Nobody even needed to touch it for Lang to score her fourth goal of October and team-leading fourth of the season.

Considering Montana had shut out its last four opponents and had allowed just a single goal since Sept. 22, it felt like the best start imaginable.

But for just the second time this season (does Wyoming ring a bell?), Montana allowed a team to come back after building a lead.

A Northern Colorado cross in the 36th minute was headed into the goal by a Griz defender.

“I’m very happy with how we started the game and the opportunities we created. We got a goal we deserved, then we kind of eased off the gas a little bit instead of continuing to attack, which is unusual for us,” said Citowicki.

“We sat in a little bit, which allowed them to express themselves and create a couple opportunities. Once they tied it, it was going to be a slugfest.”

Northern Colorado had the wind at its back in the second half, and the Bears took advantage of it. They took eight of their 11 shots after halftime, four of their six corner kicks.

All five of Claire Howard’s saves came after the break.

“Most games she hasn’t been kept busy, but today she was busy and had to make some sick saves, and she did. That’s why she’s amazing,” said Citowicki.

“We could have been a lot better, but for them to not be able to beat us in spite of everything going in their favor says a lot about the way we played.”

Six of Montana’s 11 starters played all 110 minutes. Two more played 103, another 93. Allie Larsen took two of the Grizzlies’ six shots, putting both on goal.

“It was going to be a day of mentally being strong. It was hard,” said Citowicki. “The conditions didn’t favor either team, which is why I’m not surprised it was a draw.”

A draw won’t do it on Wednesday, not for Montana, which needs a win in Cheney to claim the Big Sky regular-season championship and earn a bye at the league tournament.

Anything less will have the Grizzlies playing as the No. 3 seed and opening the tournament in the quarterfinals instead of advancing straight to the semifinals.

That turned out just fine last season, but two wins from a tournament championship is always better than three.

Wednesday’s match at EWU Soccer Field will start at 2 p.m. (MT). It is forecasted to be cold (mid-30s) but sunny.