For the first time since 2000, Montana will host the Big Sky Conference soccer tournament. The Grizzlies used a 7-0 victory over North Dakota Friday afternoon at South Campus Stadium in Missoula and other league results later in the day to clinch hosting rights.
The tournament will be held Thursday, Friday and Sunday, Nov. 6, 7 and 9, with the Grizzlies earning a bye to Friday’s second semifinal.
“I’m just excited for our players,” said UM coach Mark Plakorus, whose team also clinched at least a share of the Big Sky regular-season championship Friday. The Grizzlies, co-champions in 2012, can win their first outright league title since 2000 with a single point in the standings in their last two matches.
“I’m especially excited for the senior class. That was something they put on their list of things they wanted to accomplish last spring. To have this goal behind us is pretty neat for the team.”
Montana (10-5-2, 6-0-2 BSC) remained unbeaten in Big Sky Conference matches Friday by posting its largest margin of victory since 2000. The Grizzlies scored four goals in the first half, three more in the second and got scores from six different players.
“We talked all week that the next step we have to take as a program is making sure that every time we step out on the field, we imprint our standard on the game, then stay at that standard,” said Plakorus.
“We have to make sure we play at that level the whole game, not in spurts, so I was very pleased with how the girls were aggressive from the get-go today.”
Montana outshot overmatched North Dakota (1-13-1, 0-8-0 BSC) 26-1 and limited UND’s chances to Juliette Austin’s shot from distance in the 38th minute. By that point the Grizzlies already led 3-0.
Junior Mackenzie Akins opened the scoring in the 15th minute when she placed a shot over the keeper’s head from the top of the box.
That was the game-winner, but Montana still was mindful of two matches last Sunday: when the Grizzlies went up 2-0 at Southern Utah and allowed the Thunderbirds to rally back for a 2-2 draw and Portland State’s too-close-for-comfort 1-0 win over North Dakota despite wildly outplaying UND.
“I think it was good for us to get that first goal. We were able take a breath and calm down, then get in a rhythm and start playing our game,” said Akins. “Our other first-half goals were a big deal because in our last game we kind of let Southern Utah stay in the game with us.”
That wouldn’t be the case Friday. Senior Brooke Moody converted her third penalty kick of the season, the result of redshirt sophomore Savannah Witt getting held in the box, and freshmen Charlene Burger and Maddy Emerick added goals as well to make it 4-0 by the half.
The goal was the first of her career for Burger, who assisted on Emerick’s goal and added another assist in the second half.
Senior Paytyn Wheeler made it 5-0 in the 60th minute and freshman Allie Lucas closed out the scoring with goals in the 80th and 88th minutes.
Four of Montana’s seven goals came from non-starters, and nine reserves saw significant minutes, which cut down on playing time for the Griz starters, who had been playing major minutes the last few weeks because of the team’s injuries.
“It’s great for the confidence of those players and for our entire team’s confidence to know that we’re that deep,” said Plakorus.
Montana, which hosts Northern Colorado at noon on Sunday and wraps up the regular season at Eastern Washington next Friday, needs a tie in one of its last two matches or anything but two wins for Portland State in the Vikings’ last two matches to win an outright championship.
“This was just one of our goals. We want to make sure we continue to play at a high level and continue to push forward and try to get better every time we go out,” said Plakorus.
Montana is the only team to have clinched a spot in the six-team tournament. The next eight teams in the standings all are sitting with between 11 and 14 points. Every team but Idaho and Sacramento State has two league matches remaining.