The easy way to break down Montana’s 1-0 loss to Gonzaga on Sunday afternoon at South Campus Stadium in Missoula would be from the perspective of the left post of the goal at the south end of the field.
In the fifth minute, Kelly Bieraugel put the Bulldogs (4-2-1) ahead 1-0 when she snuck her shot just inside that post. In the 57th minute, Montana’s Kaitlin Crowell, from nearly the same spot, sent one rolling toward goal, but her shot hit the post and deflected wide.
And that’s the nature of soccer, a game of precious opportunities and sometimes decided by mere inches, right?
But from a different perspective, Sunday’s match was decided by something much less tangible than the width of a post. The team that is ranked in the NSCAA Pacific Region and had raced out to a 4-1-1 start through Friday’s 1-0 home victory over Boise State just didn’t have its best stuff.
“Sometimes you’re just flat,” said UM coach Mark Plakorus, who won his 50th game at Montana on Friday. “If you had the answer to the reason why that happens, it would never happen. But it does, and today it did to us. It’s disappointing, because I expected us to play at a much different level.”
The goal that turned out to be the game-winner came before the crowd of 423 had even made itself comfortable. Taylor Kernion played a ball from right to left, and it found an unmarked Bieraugel, who beat a diving Kailey Norman.
The goal itself shouldn’t have been too much to overcome, since more than 85 minutes still remained and Montana had yet to be shut out in a match this season. But it was how the Bulldogs’ early goal came about that signaled trouble and that a day of struggles might only be getting started.
“It was a mistake by our back line. For some reason we over-rotated, and that’s something we don’t ever do,” said Plakorus. “We didn’t hold to our principles, and that’s what happens.
“It was early enough that we should have been able to fight back in it, but for some reason we just didn’t have that fight today.”
Montana got outshot 6-0 in the first half, but that didn’t tell the whole story. The Grizzlies played as many balls into dangerous areas as Gonzaga did. Except the Bulldogs’ passes frequently found Gonzaga players, which led to shots. Montana’s never connected.
“At halftime I didn’t say much to them, other than it’s not about tactics. It’s about whether they wanted to compete today and if they had it inside of them to step up and change something,” said Plakorus, whose team lost a match at South Campus Stadium for the first time since last Sept. 13.
Crowell’s opportunity came after Gonzaga generated a pair of corner kicks and three shots in the opening eight minutes of the second half.
Hallie Widner attracted the attention of Gonzaga goalkeeper Allison Seifert, and Widner played the ball across the box to Crowell. She didn’t get a full foot on the ball, but she sent it toward goal. The shot, like Montana, was just off.
“It was one of the only chances we had today because we were so tentative,” said Plakorus. “Our intensity and focus just weren’t there. We just weren’t good enough today in any facet of the game.”
It turned out to be an opportunity lost, because Gonzaga was kept off the scoreboard the final 85 minutes of the match. Norman made four saves, and 10 of the Bulldogs’ shots were not on goal.
Seifert’s save of Chanelle Pederson’s long shot in the 66th minute was the only one she needed to make to pick up her first win and shutout of the season.
“For as poor as we were, I thought we limited them pretty well, but for the most part we just weren’t ready to play today, and they were, so give them all the credit,” said Plakorus, whose team was outshot 15-3.
Montana will play at San Jose State (2-2-2) on Friday and at Fresno State (3-3-0) on Sunday before opening Big Sky Conference play against defending league champion Idaho on Friday, Sept. 23, at South Campus Stadium.