CHENEY, Wash. – Montana's soccer season came to a close on Friday with a double-overtime loss to Northern Colorado in the semifinals of the Big Sky Soccer Championship. Montana jumped out to an early 1-0 advantage, but an unfortunate free kick goal allowed UNC to tie the score in the 72nd minute, before winning it in the 14th minute of extended time.
"It was a championship-caliber game between two good teams that were competing very well and very intensely," head coach Mark Plakorus said. "We got our goal early, but unfortunately didn't come out on top."
Montana took an early lead via a goal by freshman Alexa Coyle – her team-best fourth of the season. The goal was set up by a pass from Janessa Fowler to Ellie Otteson, who from the right corner crossed it to Coyle.
Coyle's first touch was perfect, footing the pass to get around the defender and having a clear one-on-one just feet in front of the net. The goal took Montana into the intermission ahead, 1-0.
For just the second time against conference opponents, Montana was out-shot (16-9, including 9-5 on frame). The Bears also had nine corner kicks to Montana's seven. Through 10 conference games, Montana averaged 19.30 shots per game and out-shot its opponents 193-99 (78-29 shots on goal).
However, for most of the contest, Montana looked like the team in control. In addition to holding the lead for more than 55 minutes and never trailing until the final play of the game, the Grizzlies played with more intensity for much of the match, including a near-header goal in the final minute of the first half and several good opportunities in the opening minutes of the second period.
One of those looks waived off a Griz goal after Dani Morris was called offside.
Redshirt freshman Kennedy Yost had clearance from the right side before cutting back to Allie Lucas, who from the corner of the box kicked the ball past a diving UNC goalkeeper. In between the goalkeeper and the back of the net, Morris ran in and booted the ball into the back of the net, which would have given the Grizzlies a huge 2-0 advantage.
"We don't stop coming, that's just who we are," Plakorus said. "We always try to keep going and put the other team on their heels. We got some really good looks and thought we had a second goal. I really thought we were going to get another one."
In addition to the near-goal in the 44th minute and the one that was called off, the Grizzlies had also had two free kicks. Instead, though, it was a free kick that UNC capitalized on, scoring in the 72nd minute to even the game.
Redshirt freshman Claire Howard, who has been so good all season and made several impressive stops on Friday, including a diving save early in the contest, uncharacteristically let the ball slip through her hands on a free kick that looked to be controlled. Howard had a career-high seven saves on the day.
Following Mariel Gutierrez's eighth goal of the season, the Bears closed the game with five corner kicks and two shots, but Montana was able to fend off the Bears and send the game into extended time.
Neither team had a shot in the first overtime period. In the second, Montana had a couple looks, including a corner kick and a shot on goal, but couldn't capitalize.
On the other end, UNC's Brooke Braden dribbled the ball down field and past a crossed up Montana defender. Senior Chanelle Pederson was forced to her right to cover the open attacker, but Braden passed it to the middle to an open Maddie Roberts, who was able to score the winning goal.
It marked the first time in 19 games that Montana has allowed multiple goals in a game. It also marked the first time all year that the Grizzlies lost in a game in which it scored.
"It stings because we played well today," Plakorus said. "We moved the ball well, I thought we created a great number of opportunities, we kept their counter attack in check, which is what they're good at. Any time you lose a game like this it stings, but especially this one."
The result is even more heartbreaking knowing how close the team was to making it back to the Big Sky title game for the ninth time in school history and third time under Plakorus. Even more so, Plakorus and his team felt as if they were starting to near peak form.
Junior Hallie Widner had a team-most four shot (two on frame), while Howard's seven saves were a career high.
The Grizzlies end their season with a 10-7-4 record, marking the 12th time in school history that Montana has posted double-digit wins. Prior to Friday's loss, they had earned a result in seven of their past eight contests. The record is even more impressive considering how challenging Montana's non-conference slate was. The Grizzlies played four games against Power-5 teams, including a double-overtime scoreless draw with Washington State. Last week, Montana earned a No. 15 ranking in the United Soccer Coaches West Region poll.
Montana's defense, led by Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Taryn Miller, ranks in the top-10 percent nationally, allowing just 0.76 goals per game, the second-best figure in school history.
"We'll reflect back at some point on all of the good things that came from this year," Plakorus said, "and we'll be back."
Friday marked the final game for 10 Griz seniors who have been part of 40 victories over the past four seasons – the best four-year stretch since 1999-2002.
"Your whole team is hurtling, and you have a bunch of seniors whose careers suddenly end," Plakorus said. "It brings a reality to what college sports is. It's hard. I told them how proud I am of them and thanked the seniors once again for what they've done for us over the past four years.
"I told them to keep their heads up because these players represented their team, the University of Montana and Griz Nation very well."
Nearly three-quarters of Montana's point production from this season is expected to return next fall, in addition to Howard, who started all 21 contests in net and earned honorable mention all-conference accolades.