(Editor’s Note: Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA – No. 16 Washington State jumped out to a 2-0 first-half lead and added an insurance goal in the 70th minute as the Cougars defeated Montana 3-1 on Friday night at Lower Soccer Field in Pullman.
Sophomore Alexa Coyle scored her first goal of the season, the fifth of her career, in the 63rd minute to give the Grizzlies (1-5-2) their first goal since Aug. 31.
The result extended Montana’s winless streak to four matches (0-2-2) but it gave the Grizzlies an up-close look at the type of team first-year coach Chris Citowicki hopes to mirror one day.
“They compete extremely well. For them, it’s from the first second to the final second, and the level of competition is so intense,” he said.
“I told the team beforehand that we’ve got to be able to work and grind our way through 90 minutes. What better way to test ourselves than against one of the best teams in the country at doing that.”
Even with that warning and facing a team it’s seen each of the last five seasons, Montana was on its heels from the opening minute, and the Cougars (6-0-0) made them pay for it.
It wasn’t that the Grizzlies weren’t ready to play. They just weren’t quite ready for the type of effort and intensity that was going to be required to compete with a team that made the round of 16 at last year’s NCAA tournament.
That showed less than two minutes into the match when Makamae Gomera-Stevens found herself unmarked at the top of the box and used that space to chip one over Griz keeper Claire Howard.
The match was all of 117 seconds old.
“They came out flying, and we started out slow. We only had a couple players who were competing in the first half,” said Citowicki.
Gomera-Stevens scored again in the 34th minute, when she placed one in the upper left corner, again just over the outstretched glove of a leaping Howard, who made five saves in the match.
Citowicki didn’t challenge his team to win the match when he met with his players at halftime. Instead he just asked them to compete, 11 strong. And the Grizzlies responded.
Possession began to balance out. Both teams scored quality goals. What had looked mostly one-sided in the first half began to look like a more back-and-forth contest.
“In the second half, everybody showed up to compete. We willed our way back into it. It becomes a 1-1 game if you just look at the second half. It was a very competitive affair, which I loved,” Citowicki said.
“Did we get what I wanted out of it? Yes. We can leave here with our heads held high, knowing we came into their place and gave everything we had and got better because of it.”
Even so, the match looked out of reach until Coyle sprinkled some doubt on the outcome when she took a pass from Ellie Otteson in the 63rd minute and ripped a left-footer inside the right post.
All of a sudden Montana had new life, thanks to the player Citowicki earlier this week said was ready for a breakout performance.
Coyle took four shots, the most by a player for either team, putting two of them on goal while playing all 90 minutes. She was a fly in the ointment who never took a break from challenging the Cougars.
“Alexa was absolutely amazing tonight,” Citowicki said. “She was looking to take the game to them as opposed to getting the ball and laying it off.
“Every time the ball came up to her, she held it up, even under intense pressure. She kept it high for us and let us build into the next phase of the attack. She was a nightmare for them.”
The faint hope that Montana might actually come all the way back from a two-goal deficit was erased seven minutes later, when Washington State answered Coyle’s goal with a beauty of its own.
Maddy Haro took a corner kick in the 70th minute and Maegan O’Neill headed it directly into goal to make it 3-1.
The teams combined to take just four shots over the final 20 minutes in what was Montana’s final match before it faces Northern Colorado in its Big Sky opener a week from Sunday at South Campus Stadium.
“This was exactly the type of test we needed,” said Citowicki. “If we can bring this type of tackling and this type of 50-50 winning into the Big Sky, then we’re going to be very competitive.”