Senior Lauren Costa headed in a corner kick by junior Mary Makris in the 17th minute and it stood up as the game-winner as the Montana soccer team defeated Weber State 1-0 Sunday afternoon at South Campus Stadium in Missoula.
The win gave Montana (5-4-2, 1-0-1 BSC), which played to a 1-1 draw with Idaho State Friday, a four-point weekend as the Grizzlies opened the Big Sky Conference portion of their schedule. Montana has now lost just once in its last seven matches, going 4-1-2 since falling to Texas Tech on Aug. 26.
For anyone in Missoula not at Sunday’s match, the deep exhale coming from the base of Mt. Sentinel around 1:20 p.m. was from a team that has been playing six weeks of white-knuckle soccer. When Costa scored, it gave Montana its first first-half lead since going up 1-0 at Wyoming in the season opener.
The goal was only the Grizzlies’ second first-half goal of the season, and it was a set piece executed to perfection.
Makris sent her left-footed corner kick toward the far post, and Costa, who almost pulled off a repeat a few minutes later on a corner by sophomore Tyler Adair, tracked it, crashed the box and headed in her second career goal, her first since scoring against North Dakota as a freshman in 2009.
“I wanted to get it lofted in the air to back side, because (senior Lauren) McCreath, Costa and (junior) Alyssa (Nystrom) are all there, and they are all really tall,” said Makris, who picked up her second assist of the season and third of her career.
If Montana, which scored just once against New Mexico State and Idaho State despite taking 46 shots, had been pressing, Costa’s goal felt like an unshackling.
The Grizzlies created five more corner kicks in the opening half and had an 8-3 advantage in shots at the break.
“To actually have a lead in the first half was really nice,” UM coach Mark Plakorus said in his typically understated way. “I think it took some pressure off the girls, and we played better after that.
“It loosened us up a little bit. I thought we really started to play well and closed out the first half in full control.”
Weber State (3-8-0, 1-1-0 BSC) started the match with 10 underclassmen in front of junior keeper Ryann Waldman, but the Wildcats looked veteran as they opened the second half. WSU came out of the locker room and generated two corner kicks and took a pair of shots before Montana regained its first-half form.
The Grizzlies peppered Waldman with 10 second-half shots, then withstood another late push by Weber that created a number of dangerous looks -- if not shots -- for the Wildcats in the final minutes.
“The second half we came out a little bit slow,” Plakorus said. “We knew Weber was going to come hard at us, and they did just that. They are a very skilled team, especially in the attacking positions. We kind of weathered the storm, then retook control.
“Late in the game I thought some of our decisions could have been better in closing out the game. But that’s my responsibility, and I’ll make sure we’re ready for that situation when we face it again.”
And Montana will face that situation -- holding a late-game lead -- if the Grizzlies continue to play like they did on their now-completed three-match homestand.
Montana outshot New Mexico State, Idaho State and Weber State 64-22 and put 25 shots on goal to its three opponents’ five.
The offensive balance was never as good as it was Sunday. Not only did the Grizzlies finish with an 18-9 advantage in shots taken, but 13 different players took those 18 shots, and six different players took the team’s six shots on goal.
After facing just one shot on goal in the team’s previous two matches, senior keeper Kristen Hoon faced more of a challenge in the Wildcats. Weber put four shots on goal, and Hoon made a pair of saves in both halves to pick up her fifth shutout of the season (four off the program single-season record of nine, set by Natalie Hiller in 2000).
It was Hoon’s eighth career shutout.
Montana’s four-point weekend has the Grizzlies alone in second place in the Big Sky with four points, one spot behind first-place Northern Colorado (4-4-2, 2-0-0 BSC), which opened with home shutouts of Portland State, 1-0, and Sacramento State, 2-0, this weekend.
Montana’s pursuit of a regular-season championship will henceforth be done mostly on the road. The Grizzlies will play five of their final seven league matches on unfamiliar turf, which made the weekend’s unbeaten start all the more critical.
“I thought this was a very, very good start,” Plakorus said. “Conference play is its own monster. There is a lot at stake and a lot of intensity to the games, so they are always going to be close.
“That we came out of the weekend without a loss and four points is a pretty good start for us.”
Montana will play its first Big Sky road matches next weekend at Portland State (3-6-1, 1-1-0 BSC) and Sacramento State (3-5-2, 1-1-0 BSC), two teams that split on the road this weekend. Both won at North Dakota, both lost at Northern Colorado.
The Grizzlies will face the Vikings Friday at 2 p.m. (MT) at Hillsboro, Ore., and the Hornets Sunday at 2 p.m. (MT) at Sacramento, Calif.