At this rate, coming off a seven-point home stand that moves the Montana soccer team into the upper half of the Big Sky Conference standings, the Grizzlies may just work their way back into the championship discussion, but at what cost?
“I think these guys might give me a heart attack,” said coach Mark Plakorus, after watching his team score deep into the second overtime to give Montana a 2-1 victory over Big Sky co-leader Eastern Washington Friday afternoon at South Campus Stadium in Missoula.
All four of Montana’s wins and losses in Big Sky play have been one-goal matches, with two decided in the 87th minute and Friday’s in the 108th.
The Grizzlies and Eagles traded first-half goals, then 70 minutes of back-and-forth opportunities before Allie Lucas slammed home Jenna Castillo’s blocked shot for the game-winner at 107:58 to give Eastern Washington (10-2-1, 4-1-0 BSC) its first loss since late August.
Montana (5-7-2, 2-2-1 BSC) opened its home stand last weekend with a late comeback victory over Southern Utah and a double-overtime draw with Northern Arizona. The Grizzlies crept a little higher up the league standings with three more points Friday.
“That was a game we needed to win, and the girls played their tails off to get it,” said Plakorus. “I really liked our fight. We kept battling and battling, and kept trusting in what we were doing and got rewarded for it in the end. Because a game like that, between two good teams, could go either way.”
Montana went up 1-0 when Dani Morris scored her fourth goal of the season in the 17th minute. After collecting a loose ball, EWU goalkeeper Mallory Taylor played a pass forward, but it was misplayed by an Eagle defender. Morris went in 1v1 on Taylor and scored inside the right post.
The Grizzlies just missed going up 2-0 six minutes later when Emily Kardash’s header went wide right. It was the first of a handful of missed opportunities for Montana.
Mackenzie Akins took a shot in the 36th minute that was deflected by Taylor into the crossbar. Morris avoided the middleman and put one directly off the crossbar in the 48th minute, and Ashlee Pedersen got behind the defense later in the second half and sent a chip shot just over both Taylor and the goal.
The Grizzlies outshot the Eagles 22-14, Montana’s third-highest total of the season.
“That was key for us today. We wanted to give them more to deal with than we’ve been able to do lately,” said Plakorus.
“Not only does that help our defenders get a little bit of rest, but it gets those players up in the attack as well, which causes problems for the other team. They have to drop more numbers back, and that makes it harder for them to attack us.”
Eastern Washington’s Chloe Williams, the Big Sky’s second-leading scorer with nine goals, did not find the net Friday, but her well-played corner kick in the 33rd minute allowed the Eagles to match Morris’s goal.
Williams played an excellent ball to the far post, where Jenny Chavez was waiting to head in her third goal of the season.
But the Eagles’ chances would be limited after that. The Big Sky’s second-ranked scoring team put just a pair of shots on goal in the second half and in nearly 18 minutes of overtime.
“I thought we created a number of opportunities and limited theirs pretty well, because they are a good attacking team. There is a reason they were 10-1-1 coming in, undefeated in conference and ranked in the region,” said Plakorus.
The game felt destined to finish in a tie, until Mackenzie Akins put an end to that notion. In what is becoming her signature play, Akins maintained possession on the right side of the box for what felt like a minute, evading defenders, until she made her way to the end line and sent the ball to Castillo.
A converted defensive midfielder whose ball-striking skills make her look at home farther up the field, Castillo took a shot that was blocked right back to her. She tried again, and her second shot also was blocked, but right across the face of the goal to Lucas, who scored her first goal of the season.
It was Lucas’s fourth career goal.
“That all started with Kenzie,” said Plakorus. “She singlehandedly beat three or four players to get to the end line and played the ball that Jenna got on. Then it was good on Jenna to keep going and going, and Allie did a great job of being where she was supposed to be and staying calm and putting it away.”
With one Big Sky Conference leader vanquished, Montana will look to make it a weekend sweep when it plays at Idaho (8-4-1, 4-0-0 BSC) Sunday in Moscow at 2 p.m. (MT).
The Grizzlies, now five matches through their 10-game Big Sky schedule, will play at Idaho State and Weber State next week before returning home to face Portland State and Sacramento State in their final league contests.
“It’s important to get results at home in conference, so we got what we wanted from these three matches,” said Plakorus. “Conference is a tough thing to go through. It’s very important that you get points at home, then sneak some on the road.”