Northern Arizona scored in the 73rd and 83rd minutes to rally past Montana for a 2-1 victory Friday afternoon at South Campus Stadium in Missoula in a Big Sky Conference women’s soccer match.
Senior Courtney Watson put the Grizzlies (5-8-4, 2-5-1 BSC) up 1-0 with her first goal of the season in the 56th minute.
The win gave the Lumberjacks (10-4-3, 6-2-0 BSC) their first-ever win in Missoula in 10 matches and also locked up for NAU one of the four spots to the Big Sky tournament, which will be held in two weeks at Portland State.
All news that had to supersede what should have been a happier storyline: That Montana played one of its most inspired matches of the season.
“It’s disappointing, because the kids deserved better today,” UM coach Mark Plakorus said. “I couldn’t be more proud of my team and the effort they gave today. I liked the effort they gave, how hard they played for each other, how hard they competed and how we played the game.
“Sometimes soccer can be a cruel game, and today was one of those times. I definitely felt like we were the better team and controlled the game the whole time.
“All I ever ask of the team is that they give me everything they have and play together as a team and put everything out there, and they did that today. I can’t ask for anything more. The hard part is we have to deal with a loss.”
Montana got after Northern Arizona from the start, but like so many times this season, the Grizzlies’ scoring chances did not produce anything that changed the scoreboard.
NAU keeper Lauren Weaver, whose seven shutouts this season rank second in the Big Sky, made three first-half saves and the teams went into halftime tied 0-0.
Sophomore Mackenzie Akins almost opened the scoring in the 54th minute, but her shot deflected wide off the left post.
Two minutes later Watson struck. Senior India Watne took a corner kick and played the ball into the box, and the six-foot Watson did the rest, heading in her second career goal and first since her freshman season.
But Northern Arizona wasn’t finished, and for the fifth time this season Montana came away with something less than a victory in a match in which the Grizzlies held a lead.
The Lumberjacks tied it in the 73rd minute on Nicole Sherwin’s third goal of the season. A Montana defender attempted an ill-fated clearing pass through the box, and Sherwin was there to steal it and beat Griz freshman keeper Kailey Norman.
Ten minutes later Cierra Gamble scored her fifth goal of the season and third game-winner when a pair of Lumberjack passes found her open on the far side.
“We made a mistake on the first one and played the ball across the middle of the field on our end,” Plakorus said. “We never should have put ourselves in that situation.
“The second one, we just had a lack of focus on the weak side, but that’s part of learning. We had two freshmen outside backs playing late in the game, and they need to learn what to do in those situations.”
The defensive miscues pinned the loss on Norman, but the result didn’t diminish her play. The freshman goalkeeper, who made two saves in her fourth start of the season, played a confident, active match.
Like the rest of the team, she deserved a better result.
“Kailey is a very good goalkeeper, and she’s gotten more and more confidence as the year has gone on,” Plakorus said. “At the beginning of the year she came in a little nervous, but she’s been getting better and better every week. I thought she played well today.”
Montana finished with a 14-8 advantage in shots. Senior Maddey Frey took four, Watne took three.
The Grizzlies will play their final Big Sky Conference match and last home game of the season on Sunday when Montana hosts Southern Utah (6-10-1, 3-4-1 BSC) at 1 p.m. at South Campus Stadium.
The Thunderbirds, who were eliminated from the chase for the Big Sky tournament when Idaho State won at North Dakota Friday afternoon, posted a 3-0 victory at Eastern Washington Friday.
With Sacramento State’s 1-0 home loss to Portland State Friday, the Hornets were eliminated from postseason contention, and it left Idaho State (7-7-2, 4-2-2 BSC), Weber State (8-4-3, 4-2-1 BSC) and Northern Colorado (8-5-3, 4-2-1 BSC) battling for the final two tournament spots.
Weber State and Northern Colorado play Friday night in Greeley. Idaho State plays at Northern Colorado on Sunday, while Weber State is at North Dakota.