Montana soccer coach Mark Plakorus wanted his team playing its best soccer of the season in late October, and he got his wish. It’s just that it took the Grizzlies a little too long to get here.
Montana, which outplayed Northern Arizona on Friday, defeated Southern Utah 3-1 on Sunday afternoon in the Grizzlies’ final Big Sky Conference and last home match of the season.
After making the four-team Big Sky tournament in 2011 and ’12 and advancing to the championship match both times, Montana (6-8-4, 3-5-1 BSC) will be watching from afar this year when Portland State, Northern Arizona, Weber State and Northern Colorado battle it out in two weeks in Portland.
The Grizzlies finish the season tied for sixth with Sacramento State and Southern Utah.
“We’ve been struggling all year trying to find ourselves and get into a groove with (all the injuries) we’ve been dealing with. It’s unfortunate that it took until these last two games before we finally found that groove,” Plakorus said.
“It was unfortunate we didn’t get a win on Friday, but I thought today we played well through the whole game and were probably a little unlucky we didn’t have three of four goals in the first half.”
After outplaying Northern Arizona Friday in a 2-1 loss, Montana did the same thing to a Southern Utah (6-11-1, 3-5-1 BSC) team that was the only Big Sky squad not beaten this fall by regular-season champion Portland State.
The Grizzlies outshot the Thunderbirds 13-3 in the first half and got on the board in the 10th minute when sophomore Mackenzie Akins found senior India Watne alone on the right side of the goal.
Watne, who has a propensity to maddeningly sail her shots over the goal, beat SUU keeper Tessa Christensen down and to the left for her fourth goal of the season and eighth of her career.
Senior Maddey Frey had two golden chances to put the Grizzlies up 2-0, and each time she was stymied. In the 14th minute she got past Christensen, who had come out of goal, but Frey’s shot was deflected wide by a Southern Utah defender. In the 25th minute a Frey shot rang off the crossbar.
It remained a one-goal game until the 42nd minute when Christensen came 15 yards out of goal to play a dangerous ball. But instead of playing the ball, she slammed into Griz freshman Aspen Peifer.
With the foul in the 18-yard box, sophomore Brooke Moody took the ensuing penalty kick and deftly put one to the right of Christensen for her first goal of the season and second of her career.
Play leveled off in the second half, but Watne, who was faster than anyone Southern Utah used to defend her on the flank, continued to get balls in space up the right side.
In the 70th minute she did again. She went 40 yards on her own before crossing a ball that junior Allie Simon knocked in from six yards out for her first goal of the season and fifth of her career.
“We did a good job of bringing the ball down today,” Watne said. “The center mids were connecting with each other, which gives options to both sides, and we were finally getting that slip ball in.
“We were a lot more composed and calm instead of just shooting the ball ahead, which we’ve been in the habit of doing.”
Her goal and assist gave Watne her first multi-point match of the season, and she enters her final collegiate match on Friday at UC Riverside with 14 assists, which is tied for sixth on the Montana career list.
“I thought India was fantastic today, and I thought all of our seniors played great,” said Plakorus, who was able to get playing time for eight of the 10 seniors who were in uniform for the final time at South Campus Stadium. “It’s always special when you can end your career winning on your home field.
“We had high hopes coming in this year, but things just didn’t work out for us. But that doesn’t take away everything they’ve meant to this program. To be able to play this well in their last home game and giving them that memory is pretty special.”
Southern Utah finished with an 8-4 advantage in shots in the second half and finally got on the scoreboard in the 79th minute when Sabrina Hernandez’s cross deflected off the hands of Griz keeper Kendra McMillen to Kirsten Anthony, who scored her second goal of the season.
The goal spoiled the shutout but not the festive mood of senior day, which was lacking only a Katy Perry background playlist to complete the atmosphere.
“I thought we let down a little bit after we got up 3-0, but that’s going to happen when you start to sub out all the seniors to make sure we recognized them one final time,” Plakorus said. “But all in all, I thought it was a very good game for us. It was a very good effort by the girls today.”
McMillen, who was relieved by freshman Kailey Norman in the 89th minute, made four saves to improve her season record to 5-5-4 and drop her goals-against-average to 1.32. Watne and junior Tyler Adair both took a team-high four shots. Frey took three.
Montana and UC Riverside will play on Friday at 8 p.m. (MT) at UCR Soccer Stadium.