The lasting image from Friday’s soccer match at South Campus Stadium between Montana and New Mexico State? A Griz player looking heavenward, hands on head, ruing another missed opportunity. In the photo’s background: Aggies keeper Mikaela Bitner cradling another goal-bound ball in her gloved hands.
Montana (4-4-1) unleashed 29 shots on New Mexico State (1-5-2) Friday, putting 12 of those on goal, but Bitner stopped all dozen, and the teams played to a 0-0 double-overtime draw.
Griz senior keeper Kristen Hoon collected her seventh career shutout in the tie, but not all shutouts are come by equally. Hoon faced just five shots all match, only one over the final 70 minutes. None was on goal.
“I’m very pleased with our effort. All I can ask for is the team to give me everything it has, and they did that. I thought we competed like crazy,” UM coach Mark Plakorus said. “But it seems like we always make it hard on ourselves.”
New Mexico State actually took two of the match’s first three shots, as the Grizzlies fell into a recent habit that Plakorus knows he’ll need to correct before Big Sky Conference play opens next Friday when Montana hosts league-leading Idaho State.
Montana took just five of its shots in the match in the first 45 minutes, putting one of those on goal. For the season the Grizzlies have taken 36 first-half shots, 90 after the break.
“The first half I didn’t think we played with a lot of energy,” Plakorus said. “I think we just kind of got through it.”
A different team once again emerged from the locker room. In the second half Montana took 16 shots to New Mexico State’s one, six corners to none for the Aggies.
Any ball that crossed to NMSU’s offensive side of the field ended up being merely a short respite before the next offensive attack.
“The second half we really saw what our team is, in terms of our attack and getting after it and creating opportunities and going at the other team,” Plakorus said.
“We gave them a lot of problems, because they weren’t sure what we were going to do. Every time they thought we were going to go long, we played short. Every time they thought we were going to go short, we played long, and that got them off balance.”
But the final result was always Bitner cradling the ball.
Senior Erin Craig and freshman Mackenzie Akins will both share dreams tonight of ones that got away. Craig took a career-high eight shots while playing a season-high 95 minutes. Three of her shots were on goal, and one that wasn’t clanged off the crossbar in the 70th minute.
Akins played 73 minutes, but looked energized late. She took all of her season-high four shots in the final six minutes of regulation and the two overtime periods. Three were on goal, but neither could she get one past Bitner.
Sophomore Allie Simon took a career-high four shots, senior Lauren McCreath and junior Mary Makris three, and sophomore Tyler Adair two. A boxing match would have been called. Not so in soccer. The sport still requires the knockout blow.
“I thought we created a number of opportunities, but we have to be better composed in the box when we get those opportunities,” Plakorus said.
“And we have to follow shots. We can’t watch when we get around the goal. We have to have people going in and expecting rebounds so they can finish goals.”
Montana did find the back of the net in the second overtime, but the potential game-winner was waved off by referee Jim Carter. The Grizzlies took a long shot that was caught by Bitner just as a group of attackers descended upon her.
Depending on a person’s perspective, Bitner either fumbled the ball to the ground on the catch, which allowed Akins to swoop in and score the loose ball, or else Bitner dropped it only after she was in possession and run into. Carter ruled the latter, and that was Montana’s final opportunity.
The Grizzlies will open Big Sky Conference play next Friday and Sunday when they host Idaho State and Weber State at South Campus Stadium. Montana will host the Bengals Friday at 4 p.m. and the Wildcats Sunday at 1 p.m.