After going without since 2000, even just a slice of the Big Sky Conference pie tastes sweet. The Montana soccer team won a share of the Big Sky regular-season championship Sunday afternoon with a 1-0 victory over Northern Arizona at Flagstaff, Ariz.
The Grizzlies (10-6-2, 6-2-1 BSC), who won their fifth straight match, all by shutout, share the title with Idaho State (11-5-1, 6-2-1 BSC) and Portland State (8-7-2, 6-2-1 BSC).
Montana had not won a regular-season championship since winning the outright title in 2000. It is the fifth shared or outright Big Sky title in program history.
Already holding one of the four spots to the Big Sky tournament, which will be held in two weekends at Pocatello, Idaho, Montana still needed to pick up a win Sunday to join ISU and PSU with 19 points in the final standings.
In between the Grizzlies and their goal of winning a championship was a team that had not allowed a single goal in its previous five home matches.
Montana ended Northern Arizona’s streak less than eight minutes into the match when junior Mary Makris scored her second goal of the season from 10 yards out off an assist from freshman Mackenzie Akins.
“Getting the early goal allowed us to relax,” second-year coach Mark Plakorus said. “We wanted to start fast and put pressure on them and try to get up early, because this is not an easy place to come in and get a win.
“It was great to find out Friday that we were already in the tournament, but we still had an opportunity to win a championship today, and that was important to the girls. They came out ready to play.”
Makris’s was the only goal scored, but the Grizzlies did not lack opportunities to build upon its lead and make for a more comfortable second half. Montana outshot Northern Arizona 14-4 and took 10 corner kicks to the Lumberjacks’ one.
NAU, which beat Montana 5-0 on the Grizzlies’ last trip to Flagstaff in 2010, did not get a single shot from its starters and put just one shot on goal in 90 minutes.
Griz senior keeper Kristen Hoon played all 90 minutes in net to collect her eighth shutout of the season and 10th of her career. Her eight shutouts this fall moves Hoon within one of Natalie Hiller’s program record of nine from the 2000 season.
That 2000 season was the best fall in program history. The Grizzlies went 16-5-1 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament under coach Betsy Duerksen. It was that successful past that Plakorus spoke of when he got the job just 21 months ago.
His first two teams -- last year the Grizzlies won the Big Sky tournament and advanced to the NCAAs -- have been bridging the two eras quicker than anyone thought possible.
Montana’s current five-match winning streak is the program’s longest since 2000. That was also the same season the Grizzlies, who have not allowed a goal in over 458 minutes, had five consecutive shutout wins.
“The thing I’m happiest about is that we’re seeing the fruits of our labor,” Plakorus said. “It’s great for the team to find out what’s possible if you work hard enough for it.
“From the day I got here, the girls have been determined to change this into a championship program. They made a commitment to one another and held on to the belief that they could do something special. And winning a championship today was pretty special.”
Montana, which has reached 10 wins in a season for the first time since 2006, will take the No. 3 seed into the Big Sky tournament. The Grizzlies will face No. 2 Portland State in the semifinal round on Nov. 2. The Vikings won the regular-season meeting between the teams, 2-0 at Hillsboro, Ore., on Sept. 28.
No. 1 Idaho State will meet No. 4 Weber State in the other semifinal. Weber won the regular-season meeting, 1-0 at Ogden, Utah.
In between Sunday’s clincher and its tournament opener, Montana will have a nonconference match at Utah Valley (6-10-1) next Friday night. The Wolverines have also won five straight, four by shutout.
“I like getting the break (from Big Sky matches),” Plakorus said. “It will be important for us to clean up some things next week so that we’re playing as well as we possibly can going into the tournament.”