Sophomore Ashlee Pedersen scored twice and junior Kailey Norman made four saves to lead the Montana soccer team to a 2-0 shutout victory over Weber State Thursday afternoon at the Big Sky Conference tournament in cold, wet, snowy conditions at Moscow, Idaho.
No. 5 Montana (9-10-2) advances to face No. 1 seed Idaho (13-4-2) on Friday at 2 p.m. (MT) in the tournament semifinals. In Friday’s first semifinal, No. 6 Sacramento State, a 3-1 winner over No. 3 Eastern Washington Thursday, will face No. 2 Northern Colorado.
In a game that started wet, deteriorated to snowy and slushy, and remained miserable and cold throughout, it was Montana that appeared undaunted by the elements. The Grizzlies outshot the No. 4 Wildcats (10-9-1) 13-7 and allowed just a single shot on goal in the second half.
“I can’t remember ever playing in conditions like that as a player or as a coach at the collegiate level, so for the girls to play that well and be that good, I was very pleased and happy for them,” said coach Mark Plakorus, who improved to 2-1-3 in Big Sky tournament matches.
“The best thing we did today was stay composed in every situation. We never panicked. We did what we were supposed to do and took care of things.”
Montana has been struggling all season to turn opportunities into goals, and when the rain turned to snow early in the first half -- conditions that made it even more of a challenge to be aggressive and bold -- it felt like the Grizzlies were at best going to be in a shootout after a 0-0 draw.
But the weather didn’t faze Pedersen, who entered the match with one career goal, or her teammates. In the 37th minute Mackenzie Akins, who picked up her 18th career assist on the play, put a shot from 25 yards out off the crossbar. Pedersen was there to send the rebound into the net.
In the 72nd minute the situation almost repeated itself. Sophomore Kaitlin Crowell put another shot off the crossbar, and once again Pedersen was there to punch it in to help Montana match its second-highest goal output of the season.
“I was really pleased with Ashlee and what she did for us today,” Plakorus said. “We’ve been talking all year about taking chances and following shots, and she did that.
“What I’m really proud of is that we took shots today. We didn’t hold back. We didn’t worry about missing anything. And people off the ball, especially Ashlee, followed those shots up and made sure they went in the goal.”
Pedersen, Akins and Dani Morris all took three shots for Montana. Pedersen and Morris, with two each, accounted for four of the Grizzlies’ seven shots on goal.
With conditions as they were, a one-goal advantage was huge. Pedersen’s second goal, at 71:04, left Weber State, which took just two shots in the second half, visibly defeated. Just getting the ball up the field and into a dangerous position was tough enough. To have to do it twice in 18 minutes?
“In those conditions, it makes it incredibly difficult for the team that’s down. In a one-goal game against a team like Weber State, anything can happen,” Plakorus said. “You get a second goal, and it makes it very difficult. I think the second one took the wind out of their sails.”
Norman made saves on shots by Mackenzie Harrison and Chansi Crompton, two of Weber State’s All-Big Sky Conference attackers, in the first half to keep the Wildcats off the board. She saved a header taken by Stacy Bair, an honorable mention All-Big Sky selection, in the second half.
It gave Norman her first career postseason shutout and was the 11th by a Griz keeper at the Big Sky tournament. It also was Norman’s 16th career shutout, in conditions that slowed the pace of the game but made a goalkeeper’s job dicier than normal.
“It’s actually tougher for a goalkeeper on a day like today,” said Plakorus. “In conditions like we had, the ball is going to skip and they don’t bounce true, so as a keeper you have to be incredibly focused. Kailey did a fantastic job handling everything that came at her.
“Our back line was really good today as well. You have to adjust the way you play in those conditions. You can’t do exactly what you want to do all the time. It was a really good game by everyone. A great team effort in awful conditions.”
Up next is top-seeded Idaho, which went 9-0-1 through its league schedule and hasn’t lost since Sept. 13. One of the Vandals’ wins during its 12-match unbeaten streak was a 3-1 victory over Montana on the same Guy Wicks Field that is hosting the tournament.
The teams were scoreless at the half, then Idaho scored three goals in 28 minutes in the second half to pull away.
“We’re a much different team than we were three or four weeks ago. We’re in a different frame of mind,” said Plakorus, who will try to lead his team to its third Big Sky championship match in his five years at Montana.
“The girls are excited about the opportunity to play in a semifinal and excited to play against another team that beat us this year. Hopefully we can put an effort together that is going to give us an opportunity to have some success tomorrow.”