Montana won’t be hosting the Big Sky Conference tournament, but the Grizzly soccer team may have something even more valuable going for it. Montana is the hottest team in the league at just the right time.
The Grizzlies picked up a 1-0 victory at Southern Utah Friday afternoon at Cedar City, Utah, their fourth consecutive victory. All four wins have come by shutout.
It’s the program’s longest winning streak and first time with four straight shutouts since 2006, and the first time since 2000 that Montana (9-6-2, 5-2-1 BSC) has won four straight Big Sky Conference matches.
And five and a half hours after the conclusion their own match, the Grizzlies’ day only got better.
With Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington playing to a double-overtime draw at Flagstaff, Ariz., Friday night, Montana clinched a spot in its second consecutive Big Sky Conference tournament, its first back-to-back tournaments since 2003-04.
With its 3-1 win over Sacramento State Friday afternoon, Portland State (8-7-2, 6-2-1 BSC), the preseason league favorite, clinched at least a share of the Big Sky title and the first of the four spots to the tournament.
Idaho State (10-5-1, 5-2-1 BSC), which also clinched a tournament spot with NAU’s tie Friday night, can match the Vikings atop the standings and claim tournament hosting rights with a victory at home Saturday over North Dakota.
Montana, which loses all tiebreakers to Idaho State and Portland State, can make it a two- or three-way tie for first with a victory Sunday at Northern Arizona.
The fourth and final tournament team will be either Weber State (7-10-0, 5-3-0 BSC) or Northern Colorado (6-6-4, 4-2-2 BSC). The Wildcats host the Bears Saturday at noon in Ogden, Utah, in a perfectly scripted head-to-head matchup.
The Grizzlies put themselves in position to win their first Big Sky Conference regular-season title since 2000 Friday when sophomore Paytyn Wheeler headed in junior Mary Makris’s cross in the 66th minute for the only goal of the match.
“That was probably our best goal of the year,” UM coach Mark Plakorus said. “Mary won the ball and played it in from the flank. Paytyn came from the back side and headed it inside the far post.
“It’s the type of goal we’ve been working on the last two weeks.”
It was a match that shouldn’t have come down to the closing minutes as a one-goal game.
Montana put three shots off the crossbar in the opening 28 minutes -- junior Maddey Frey in the third minute, sophomore Allie Simon in the fourth minute and Frey again in the 27th minute -- and outshot Southern Utah 12-3 in the first half, but the teams were deadlocked at the half.
Wheeler’s goal, her fourth of the season and the sixth of her career, broke the tie just over 20 minutes into the second half, and senior keeper Kristen Hoon made four second-half saves, six for the match, for her seventh shutout of the season, two shy of Natalie Hiller’s program record of nine from 2000.
“Overall we competed very hard,” Plakorus said. “It wasn’t our prettiest game. It was more workmanlike today, but we got the job done. I’m proud of the girls and how hard they are working.”
Montana will play at Northern Arizona (5-7-5, 3-2-3 BSC) Sunday at noon (MT) with an opportunity to earn a share of the Big Sky regular-season championship.
The Lumberjacks have not allowed a goal in their last five home matches, though they have just two wins in those outings. The last three, against Portland State, Sacramento State and Eastern Washington, have ended in 0-0 ties.
Montana will end the regular season next Friday with a nonconference match at Utah Valley as a lead-up to the Big Sky tournament, which will open with two semifinal matches on Friday, Nov. 2.