Before he had coached his first game at Montana, Mark Plakorus expressed a goal of turning South Campus Stadium into a true home-field advantage. Check another item off the to-do list in Plakorus’s ongoing program makeover.
The Grizzlies produced their most lopsided win since 2006 and finished off the first unbeaten (3-0-2) home schedule in program history with a 4-0 shutout of North Dakota Sunday afternoon on Senior Day at South Campus Stadium.
It was only a five-match home schedule in 2012, matching 1994 and 2005 as the fewest home matches in a season, but unbeaten is unbeaten.
“I think the entire program is coming along in the right direction, and part of building a successful program is being able to get results at home,” Plakorus said.
“We only had five (this year), so the real challenge will be having that kind of success when we have eight or 10 home matches, but doing this in the second year is pretty special and a testament to these seniors and this group of girls that wanted to be different.
“It’s doesn’t mean we’ve arrived. It just means we’re moving in the right direction.”
Montana (7-6-2, 3-2-1 BSC) led 1-0 at the break Sunday and had to survive a North Dakota (2-9-1, 0-5-0 BSC) shot that clanked off the crossbar three minutes into the second half before pulling away with three goals in the final 31 minutes.
Coupled with Montana’s 1-0 victory Friday over then Big Sky Conference leader Northern Colorado, the six points vaulted the Grizzlies from seventh place entering the weekend into a tie for third with two weekends of league matches remaining (see full standings below).
North Dakota entered Sunday’s match having been outscored 17-3 over its previous six matches, all loses. Despite outshooting UND 13-2 in the first half, the Grizzlies were only able to build a one-goal advantage by the break.
That goal came in the 28th minute when freshman Mackenzie Akins was the beneficiary of North Dakota keeper Kristi Hestdalen’s slippery fingers.
Junior India Watne’s attempt to spring Akins on a 1-v-1 opportunity was a touch strong, and Hestdalen was able to get to the loose ball first. But she fumbled it, and Akins was left with nothing between her and the net. It was Akins’ second goal of the season and would turn out to be the game-winner.
Montana looked like it was on the hockey equivalent of a power play for most of the first half, with the ball rarely leaving North Dakota’s end of the field, but UND gave itself a number of opportunities to score the equalizer early in the second half.
Noel Scherer’s chip shot hit the crossbar in the 48th minute, and North Dakota earned a dangerous free kick from just outside the box in the 54th minute.
Sheri Stapf’s initial free kick bounced off Montana’s wall of defenders, and the rebound came right back to Stapf. Her follow-up shot from roughly the same spot -- this time without the wall of defenders -- was saved by Griz keeper Kristen Hoon.
It would be the only save Hoon and junior keeper Kendra McMillen, who replaced Hoon in the 78th minute and the Griz up 3-0, needed for the combined shutout.
Montana got the goal that finally took hearts out of throats in the 60th minute and put most of the crowd of 407 at ease while making it hungrier for more.
Senior Erin Craig put one of her match-high six shots past Hestdalen. The shot did not score, but it went off the left post and directly to sophomore Paytyn Wheeler, who netted her third goal of the season to make it a comfortable 2-0 margin.
Craig assisted 15 minutes later on sophomore Allie Simon’s second goal of the weekend in the 75th minute, and junior Mary Makris finished the scoring in the 84th minute when her chip shot from distance was lobbed expertly over Hestdalen, giving Makris her first career goal.
Montana finished the second half with another edge in shots and had a 25-7 advantage for the match, plus an 11-1 advantage in corner kicks. With the result decided, Plakorus was able to sub out his seniors in the final minutes for some well-earned recognition.
“This team is very, very close, and the younger players wanted to make sure that they played at a high level today,” Plakorus said. “They wanted to send the seniors out on a good note in their final match on their home field.
“It’s a great way for your senior day to go. It doesn’t always happen like that, but when it does, it’s pretty special.”
Sunday was Montana’s final home match of the season, which means the team’s three remaining Big Sky matches -- pressure-filled matches that will determine the Grizzlies’ postseason fate -- will be road tests.
The Grizzlies have their lone single-match week upcoming when they play at Eastern Washington (5-6-3, 2-2-2 BSC) next Friday at 4:30 p.m. (MT) at Cheney, Wash. The Eagles defeated North Dakota 4-1 Friday and played to a scoreless draw with Northern Colorado Sunday.
Montana will conclude its league schedule with matches at Southern Utah (1-9-1, 0-5-0 BSC) on Friday, Oct. 19, and Northern Arizona (4-6-4, 2-1-2 BSC) on Sunday, Oct. 21.
“The girls played extremely well this entire weekend and we had things go our way,” Plakorus said. “It should give us some confidence as we head out on the road and see what we can do these last two weeks of the conference season.”