Despite starting the season under a bad sign and playing a disadvantageous league schedule, the Big Sky Conference’s lone wolf will be playing into November.
Aspen Peifer scored her first goal of the season in the 43rd minute and goalkeeper Kailey Norman stopped a penalty kick in the 55th to help Montana to a 1-0 victory over Sacramento State Sunday afternoon at South Campus Stadium in Missoula.
The victory sends the Grizzlies to the Big Sky Conference tournament, which will be held at Moscow, Idaho, for the fourth time in five years under coach Mark Plakorus.
Montana will play a quarterfinal game on Thursday, Nov. 5, against an opponent still to be determined. And for now, the opponent matters far less than the fact the Grizzlies advanced.
Montana (8-9-2, 5-4-1 BSC) lost two important starters for the year before the season even began in early August, lost another starter before the conference schedule opened and played all season as the Big Sky’s lone wolf, ensuring 10 fresh and rested opponents. The Grizzlies advanced anyway.
“I’m incredibly proud of this team to get to the tournament with what we’ve faced. The process we’ve gone through to figure ourselves out with how hard it’s been and what we’ve had to go through, I give the players all the credit in the world. They just keep fighting,” said Plakorus.
“Today wasn’t our best game. The Sunday ones never are, because we’re tired and the team we’re playing is rested. They came out really hard and pressed us, and we hung in there and just kept battling and grinding. That’s all today was really.”
After the Grizzlies just missed on a pair of opportunities early in the first half -- Allie Lucas freed Ellie Otteson with a sweet lead pass that Otteson sent left of goal; Chanelle Pederson sent a cross from the left side that Peifer headed high -- Peifer opened the scoring at 42:23.
Mary Gintz took a corner kick that went to Payton Agnew outside the 18-yard box. Agnew played it toward goal, where it found Ashlee Pedersen. She touched the ball to Peifer, who ripped what would be the game-winner just under the crossbar from 10 yards out.
It was the first goal of the season, the second of her career, for the hapless redshirt sophomore, who missed the 2014 season because of injury and has been playing at less than full health this fall. It was the first career assist for Pedersen.
“Everybody’s been giving something for this team to be successful,” said Plakorus. “Aspen hasn’t been 100 percent all year and only coming in for spot duty. And today she scores an important goal.”
Sacramento State (6-11-0, 4-5-0 BSC), which will now need to defeat Portland State next Friday and get help to make the tournament, had a golden chance to tie it in the 55th minute.
Kylee Smith split a pair of Montana defenders on the right side and was pulled down a few steps inside the box. Jennifer Lum took the penalty kick and topped it. The weak dribbler bounced right to Norman, who only had to bend over and scoop to make the save.
“I love stopping penalty kicks,” said Norman, who admitted she probably hasn’t had an easier save on a PK in her career.
“She looked one way, so I knew she was going to go the other. Before she even took it I moved one step to my left. Before she even stepped to kick it, she knew I was in the right spot.”
The teams had matched shots to that point, five for Montana, four for Sacramento State, but the Hornets would go more than 30 minutes before getting another.
“A ton of the credit goes to the work in front of me,” said Norman, who needed to make just two saves for her 15th career shutout, now second most in program history behind Railene Thorson’s 28. “We did a great job of keeping the ball in front of us.”
Montana didn’t need to score again, but the Grizzlies almost picked up an insurance goal in the 73rd minute.
With Sac State goalkeeper Molly McConnell out of position, Charlene Burger’s shot was stopped at the goal line by a Hornet defender. The rebound went to Ellie Otteson, and her follow-up shot was saved by McConnell, who scrambled back into position to make a diving save.
Sacramento State was limited to just two second-half shots and five for the match, a season low for a Montana opponent, and that allowed the Grizzlies, who defeated Portland State on Friday afternoon by the same score, to finish off their first weekend sweep of the season. And it came at a perfect time.
“Going into the weekend we knew what was at stake, and we were totally prepared for it,” said Norman. “We wanted to come out with a bang, and we definitely did. Getting two shutouts shows what we’re capable of.”
Montana will wrap up the regular season with a match at Texas on Friday at 6 p.m. (MT). The other 10 Big Sky teams will play one final match against their travel partners the same day.
The Grizzlies could hold their current position of fourth place, finish alone in fifth or end up tied for fifth when the dust settles next week. Whatever happens, Montana, which won three of its last four league matches to make its way into the tournament, will be playing in November.
“I like how we’re competing right now and how we’re playing,” Plakorus said. “We’re got fight in us, and we’re playing hard for each other. And that’s going to give us a chance every time we step on the field.”
Idaho, Eastern Washington, Northern Colorado, Montana and Weber State will take up five of the six spots at the Big Sky tournament. The other will be filled by Northern Arizona, Sacramento State or Southern Utah.
Two quarterfinal matches (No. 3 vs. No. 6, No. 4 vs. No. 5) will be played on Thursday, Nov. 5. The top overall seeds -- Idaho and either Northern Colorado or Eastern Washington -- will play Thursday’s winners on Friday, Nov. 6. The championship match will be played on Sunday, Nov. 8.