MISSOULA, Mont. – Friday was a day of celebration for the Montana soccer team. Prior to the game, the Grizzlies recognized 10 seniors who have been part of one of the most successful four-year stretches in school history, and after 110 minutes of play, they celebrated clinching the No. 2 seed in next week's Big Sky Soccer Championship, earning a bye into the semifinals.
Montana and Portland State fought through two overtime periods, with the Griz grinding out a 1-1 draw with the visiting Vikings.
"I'm pretty pleased to get the result out of today," head coach Mark Plakorus said. "It's always good to get a result on Senior Day. I thought we started the game with a lot of energy and were moving the ball very well."
In a gesture to those playing their final game at South Campus Stadium, Plakorus' starting lineup featured the senior class.
"These young ladies spend four, sometimes five years working as hard as they can for us," Plakorus said. "Giving them the opportunity, on the last game of their career at home, the opportunity to start is something neat for them and their families. It's a thing I think they've earned and I'm glad we could do it for them."
While it may have been a kind gesture, it also produced Montana's early goal. Less than 8 minutes into the contest, senior Maddy Emerick took a free kick from 40 yards out and lofted it perfectly inside the box, where Taryn Miller headed it into the back of the net.
It was Emericks' first career assist. The Billings, Mont., native has played in nine matches this season, with seven of them coming over the past month. For Miller, it was her second goal of the season.
The goal also meant Montana was playing in front for the second consecutive game, but just 18 minutes later, Portland State's Ellie Vasey had the equalizer. Her teammate Krystal De Ramos was blocked, but the loose ball went directly to Vasey, who one-timed it past a diving Maddie Vincent.
Vincent was playing in her seventh career contest. She played the first 52 minutes in net, recording three saves.
The Grizzlies posted 23 shots, upping their league-leading season average. However, just four of their 16 shots during regulation were on goal, compared to six on just nine attempts for the Vikings.
"After the goal, our level dipped a little bit, for whatever reason," Plakorus said. "It's a very emotional day for the team with the seniors. We kind of dropped our level a little bit, but I thought as the second half went on, and into overtime, we fought ourselves back into the game. We were very unlucky to not get a second goal."
Earlier in the day, Northern Colorado tied North Dakota, meaning a Montana win or tie would lock up the No. 2 seed; a win for Portland State would give the Vikings that spot.
Despite knowing a tie would hold the same result as a win, that didn't change Montana's approaching during the overtime period. Montana turned it up a notch in the final 20 minutes, taking seven shots in the extended period (compared to Portland State's two) and earning three corner kicks. The Griz had several near-goals, but in the end finished tied at 1-1.
"It didn't change our strategy," Plakorus said. "We were trying to win. We play to win and we wanted to get that second goal. I thought we created a ton of chances and created some good looks. We maybe held on to the ball a little too long at times, but I thought we attacked very well trying to get the goal to win it."
The victory concludes Montana's regular season and ends its home slate unbeaten (6-0-2). For the seniors, the 40 wins over the past four seasons is the best four-year stretch since 1999-2002. The Grizzlies' 22 home wins during that span is the highest total since 2000-2003 and their 23 Big Sky victories tie an all-time best.
The Griz don't know their next opponent – they'll play the winner of Wednesday's quarterfinal matchup between No. 3 Northern Colorado and No. 6 Sacramento State – but they'll take advantage of the extra time off to get rested up and healed up. The team has seen every other team, so Plakorus said the focus is less about scouting an opponent and more about getting his team prepared to play its best game.
"We've been going now for three months," Plakorus said. "It's more about giving them a break to get a little bit of rest so we're at the highest level we can when we head to Cheney next weekend."