The win didn’t save Montana’s season, but another one-goal loss, particularly the dispiriting kind that was looming Friday afternoon at South Campus Stadium, would have dug the hole that much deeper.
Already 0-2-0 in Big Sky Conference matches and trailing Southern Utah 1-0 in the closing minutes, the Griz soccer team scored twice in a span of 65 seconds to pull out a dramatic 2-1 victory over the Thunderbirds.
After Southern Utah took a 1-0 lead in the 79th minute, it was an all-underclassmen gang to the rescue for Montana.
Freshman Ellie Otteson headed in sophomore Chanelle Pederson’s corner kick in the 86th minute to tie it. Then Otteson’s blocked shot in the 87th found its way to sophomore Charlene Burger, who kicked in the game-winner.
“I was really proud of my team after we gave up that goal,” said coach Mark Plakorus, whose team allowed game-winners late in the second half of one-goal road losses last weekend at North Dakota and Northern Colorado.
“It would have been easy to say, Here we go again, but we didn’t hang our heads. We kept fighting. This team’s been through a lot, but if we compete like we did today, it will give us a chance in every game.”
A loss and a 0-3-0 start would have been bad enough, but a loss after outplaying an opponent would have been demoralizing. Besides taking a season-high 25 shots, Montana three times put ball, literally, on frame.
Freshman Dani Morris sent a shot off the crossbar in the 12th minute. Later in the half, Burger pinged one off the right post. In the second half, senior Mackenzie Akins, the player of the match even though she did not factor in any of the scoring, hit the left post.
In all, the Grizzlies outshot the Thunderbirds 25-10, with Akins taking a career-high nine.
And yet it was Southern Utah that opened the match’s scoring. Payton Bonino, from the ground, found Abbie Flandro, and she made it 1-0 at 78:54 with her second goal of the season from 10 yards out in front of goal.
Enter Otteson, who scored her first collegiate goal Sunday at Northern Colorado, celebrated her 19th birthday on Friday and played a major role in both of Montana’s goals.
“We knew we had to win this game,” she said, referencing not so much the team’s pregame spot near the bottom of the Big Sky standings but something more intangible. “You never want to get into a routine of losing and start feeling like it’s okay, because it’s not.”
Montana’s first five corner kicks of the second half came up empty. No. 6 changed everything. Pederson played the ball to the front half of the box, and all 5-feet-4 of Otteson was there to head the ball past SUU keeper Taylor Bolding at 85:11.
“I like to get after it in the air. Those are my favorite goals. A lot of players set up and wait, so I know if I run to the ball, they aren’t expecting it. I think I’m better with my head than with my feet,” said Otteson, whose feet were pretty magical one minute later.
Otteson and a Thunderbird defender came foot-to-foot on the ball to the left of Southern Utah goal. Otteson came away with it, somehow making it look like the defender wasn’t even in the picture. Her shot was blocked, but the ball rolled right across the face of the goal, where Burger was waiting.
With Bolding covering the near post to stop the immediate threat of Otteson, Burger had a wide-open net, no more than five yards out.
“I knew I was going to make it. There was no way I could miss. We work a lot in practice on crossing and finishing, so it’s something I’ve been working on lately,” said Burger.
Within minutes, what looked like a loss, then looked like overtime, turned into a win. Whether it was one game in time or whether there will be carryover benefits to the rest of the season will start to be determined on Sunday. Montana hosts preseason league favorite Northern Arizona at noon.
“It was frustrating today when we weren’t able to get an early goal on some of our chances, so I’m really proud of the team and how they performed and how they fought. We kept plugging away,” said Plakorus. “Now we need to keep it going and put in another great performance Sunday.”