Facing the Big Sky Conference’s top-ranked team and opening its final home weekend of the season, the Montana soccer team picked up a key win Friday afternoon at South Campus Stadium, 1-0 over Northern Colorado.
The Bears (5-5-2, 3-1-0 BSC) entered Friday’s game perfect through their first three Big Sky Conference matches, posting three shutouts and outscoring their opponents 6-0. The Grizzlies (6-6-2, 2-2-1 BSC) were coming off a winless road trip to Portland State and Sacramento State.
In a tight match befitting two of the league’s better programs, sophomore Allie Simon scored the match’s only goal in the 77th minute when she redirected sophomore Tyler Adair’s crossing pass.
“We talk all the time that when you realize you don’t have a good angle to put the ball in the goal or have a good chance of scoring, get the ball across the goal and trust that your teammates are going to be there,” UM coach Mark Plakorus said.
“Then it’s up to the players who are off the ball to always be expecting that the ball is going to come to them. You can’t be surprised by it.”
The match turned out to be as even as expected between the teams that met in the semifinals of last year’s Big Sky Conference tournament and were picked second (UNC) and third (UM) in this year’s preseason poll.
Both teams took 10 shots in the match, each team putting four on goal, and when the clock hit 70 minutes and the match was still scoreless, it appeared the teams might be on their way to overtime for the third time in their last four meetings.
That’s when Montana scored not just the game-winning goal but the goal that kept them in the running for the four-team Big Sky Conference tournament.
Senior Erin Craig started the goal-scoring sequence when she sent a ball wide to the right side of the goal. Adair beat two Northern Colorado defenders to the loose ball and looked to the goal from a low-percentage angle. That’s when Plakorus’s teachings produced tangible results.
“The keeper was blocking the near post, and I knew if I shot she would probably stop it, so I decided to drill it across and hoped someone was there,” Adair said. “I knew that if I nailed it, something good might come out of it.”
At the other end of her pass, Simon was feeling the same way. “I remember thinking, I hope she slips this through, because I was just standing there hanging out,” she said.
“Tyler made the right decision at the right time, and I just happened to be there.”
With the ball approaching, Simon took two steps back, then launched herself toward the goal, one-timing Adair’s pass with her right foot from just a few yards out for her first goal of the season and the second of her career.
“It was a little bit of a pick-me-up,” said Simon, who’s had a litany of injuries dating back to her sophomore year of high school that would stack up against any athlete who claims they’re cursed.
“With all my injuries it’s a moment I’ve been waiting for for a long time. But when I scored it was not about me. I felt overwhelmed for the team, because it feels like we’re going somewhere again.”
After dropping 2-0 decisions at both Portland State and Eastern Washington last weekend, Montana looked like a renewed team in the first half against Northern Colorado. Though the Grizzlies held a slim 5-4 advantage in shots at the break, they mostly controlled play through the opening 45 minutes.
Northern Colorado turned momentum early in the second half, taking four of the first five shots, but the Bears could not get a ball past Griz keeper Kristen Hoon, who made four saves in the match to collect her sixth shutout of the season and ninth of her career.
“When you have two teams that are very solid, there is going to be some ebb and flow,” Plakorus said. “I really wanted to get a goal early, because I thought we had control of the game in the first half.
“They came out in the second half and put us on our heels a little bit, but we rode that storm out and started getting the ball back on the ground and finding each other.”
Montana, which hosts North Dakota (2-8-1, 0-4-0 BSC) Sunday at 11 a.m. on Senior Day, won’t know what Friday’s victory means for its position within the Big Sky until the day’s late games have been decided. But Plakorus knows the standings will take care of themselves over the next three weeks if his team continues to play like it did against the Bears.
“I was very pleased with our effort throughout the game and the composure we showed,” he said. “I thought it was one of our more complete games of the season, and we needed that if we were going to come up with a win against a Northern Colorado team that is extremely well-coached.
“After last weekend we needed to have a better performance. That was our big focus this week. We needed to get back to playing hard and leaving it out on the field. We can enjoy this one today, but tomorrow morning we need to start getting ready for North Dakota.”