The Montana soccer team won its third straight match with a 4-0 victory over Eastern Washington Friday afternoon at Cheney, Wash. Senior Erin Craig had a pair of goals and assisted on another.
Because of a shakeup in the Big Sky Conference standings Friday -- none of the five teams playing at home won -- the Grizzlies (8-6-2, 4-2-1 BSC) find themselves, at least until Sunday, in a tie atop the Big Sky with Portland State (6-7-2, 4-2-1 BSC).
Montana is off Sunday, a day when four more league matches will be played, including third-place Weber State (6-9-0, 4-2-0 BSC) at Portland State.
The Grizzlies will conclude their Big Sky schedule next week with matches at ninth-place Southern Utah (1-9-2, 0-5-1 BSC) and fourth-place Northern Arizona (5-6-4, 3-1-2 BSC).
Friday’s match continued Montana’s recent run of impressive results. Since opening the season with 10 goals through their first 13 matches, the Grizzlies have scored nine goals in their last three outings, all while allowing none.
The Grizzlies blanked Northern Colorado, 1-0, and North Dakota, 4-0, at home last weekend.
Montana and Eastern Washington have traditionally played tight, low-scoring matches. Not Friday. The Grizzlies jumped on the Eagles early and had the lead before the match was five minutes old.
Craig’s second shot on goal in the opening minutes was saved by EWU keeper Jamie Walker, but the save was bobbled, and Craig was there to tap in her team-leading fifth goal of the season.
That was only the start of the early pressure Montana would apply. Over the opening 20 minutes the Grizzlies took nine shots to none for the Eagles and created three corner kicks.
The third of those corners, taken by Craig, was headed in, textbook style, by sophomore Tyler Adair for her second career goal, giving Montana a 2-0 lead in the 19th minute.
“We started out good right away and created some chances,” UM coach Mark Plakorus said. “Erin’s hard work early really set the tone.”
Eastern wouldn’t score in the opening 45 minutes, but after falling behind 2-0, the Eagles outshot the Grizzlies the remainder of the half and created three corner kicks of their own.
“There was maybe 15 minutes in the first half when things started to get away from us, but for the most part we controlled things. And most important, we finished our chances.
“I was very pleased with how we played from start to finish. I thought we were relaxed and ready.”
Montana quickly put an end to any thoughts of a second-half rally. Craig, after dribbling around the defense, put her second goal of the match in the far corner to build the advantage to 3-0 in the 48th minute.
The goal was Craig’s 19th of her career and moves her into a tie for eighth with Sheralyn Fowler (1994-96) on the Montana career list.
Sophomore Allie Simon, the reigning Big Sky Conference co-Offensive Player of the Week, added the final goal, her third in three matches, when she took a through-ball from freshman Mackenzie Akins and beat Walker from 12 yards out in the 79th minute.
Senior Kristen Hoon started in goal and played the first 78 minutes, making four saves. Junior Kendra McMillen relieved Hoon late in the match and made a save that allowed the Grizzlies to post their eighth shutout of the season.
The win continues a surprising turnaround for Montana, which dropped to 1-2-1 in league matches after dropping a pair of 2-0 decisions on a road trip to Portland State and Sacramento State two weekends ago.
Since that trip Montana has posted three shutouts and outscored its opponents 9-0.
“We’ve responded well,” Plakorus said. “We didn’t play at the level we wanted to that weekend. It wasn’t representative of who we are or how we want to play.
“I credit the players. It’s all about us and our competitive level and how hard we play. The team is learning how to put forth that type of effort.”
Montana and Eastern Washington are both idle Sunday, while the other eight Big Sky Conference teams will be in action.
The one-match week comes at a fitting time for the Grizzlies. Eleven of the team’s 16 matches this season have been away from home, and a big opportunity looms next weekend, again on the road.
“I think this comes at a good time,” Plakorus said. “We’ve been on the road a lot, and we’ll be on the road again the next two weekends. I think it will be good for the team to take a breather at this point.”
Montana will face Southern Utah next Friday at 3 p.m. at Cedar City, Utah, and Northern Arizona next Sunday at noon (MT) at Flagstaff, Ariz.