(Editor’s note: Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA – The Montana soccer team will close out its pre-Big Sky Conference schedule this week when the Grizzlies play at No. 16 Washington State on Friday night.
The Grizzlies (1-4-2) and Cougars (5-0-0) will square off at 8 p.m. (MT) at WSU’s Lower Soccer Field in Pullman.
Montana will open league next week when it hosts Northern Colorado on Sunday, Sept. 23.
Coverage: Friday’s match will have video coverage through WSU Live Stream, in addition to live stats.
At a glance (Montana): The Grizzlies have lost just once in their previous four matches (1-1-2) but have also scored just a single goal in those outings. The defense has been up to the challenge, posting three consecutive shutouts before Sunday’s 2-0 loss at UNLV.
At a glance (Washington State): The Cougars shut out Idaho on Thursday by a score of 3-0 to improve to 5-0-0 and give the program its third perfect start through five matches in program history. WSU has allowed just two goals through five matches and has road wins at both Minnesota and Nebraska.
The matchup: Facing a ranked opponent will be nothing new for Montana — the Grizzlies have done so 18 times in their history.
Nor will it be new to face a ranked opponent on Washington State’s home field — Montana did so just last year, losing 1-0 to No. 14 Nebraska in a neutral-site match.
But none of that makes Friday’s match any less of a challenge.
Washington State advanced to the round of 16 in last year’s NCAA tournament before bowing out in double overtime on the road at Florida and the Cougars are off to a 5-0-0 start this fall while outscoring their opponents 11-2.
“They had a tremendous season last year and have one of the better programs in the nation this year,” said first-year Montana coach Chris Citowicki. “We’re really looking forward to it.”
Washington State lost one of the best goalkeepers in the Pac-12 in its matchup against Idaho last week when Ella Dederick suffered a season-ending injury in the 74th minute.
That setback may have made winning a Pac-12 title much more difficult, but the Cougars will still be a tough defense to crack, especially for a team that hasn’t scored a goal since Aug. 31.
Montana was shut out by its last three opponents: North Dakota and Wyoming, which the Grizzlies played to 0-0 draws, and on Sunday by UNLV.
With his team’s scoreless streak at more than 310 minutes, Citowicki is tweaking some things this week — both in personnel and where they play on the field, and tactically — all with a goal of preparing for next week.
“There are three seasons for us,” said Citowicki. “There is nonconference play, there is conference play and there is postseason play. What matters for us is Big Sky, so we’re constantly asking ourselves, What have we learned so far? What has to be fixed so that we’re ready for the start of conference?
“We’re making a couple of small adjustments this week in practice that I think are going to change things for us. Friday will be a good way to test them and get used to them, then we’ll take that into Big Sky.”
Washington State is more than a stout defensive team. The Cougars have scored multiple goals in four of its first five matches, with eight players getting into the scoring column, 11 when assists are added.
Junior Morgan Weaver has scored a team-high three goals and is taking nearly six shots per match. Senior Maddy Haro has five assists in five matches.
“They are a very athletic team and just quick, so they are dangerous,” said Citowicki. “Their biggest asset is their athleticism. They love the individual battle of going at you 1-v-1. If you win enough of those, you up winning games.”
Washington State is ranked No. 16 nationally and one of four Pac-12 teams in the latest United Soccer Coaches top-25 poll.
The Cougars are ranked fourth in the Pacific Region, behind Stanford (1) and UCLA (3), which met in last year’s national championship match, and 6-0-1 USC (2).
History: Montana is 6-11-2 against Washington State but hasn’t picked up a win in the series since 2004. Since that win, the Grizzlies are 0-7-1 against the Cougars, with last year’s 0-0 draw in Missoula snapping Montana’s seven-match losing streak against WSU.
Montana is 2-7-1 against Washington State in Pullman and has lost five straight against the Cougars on their home field. (The Grizzlies did pick up win on WSU’s Lower Soccer Field last season, defeating Georgia Southern two days before facing Nebraska.)
* The Grizzlies are 3-15 all-time against ranked opponents. Their last win came on the road against No. 19 Washington State, a 1-0 victory in the first round of the 2000 NCAA tournament. Since that win, Montana is 0-7 against ranked teams, with a single goal scored.
* Facing a team from the Pac-12 will be nothing new for Montana, which has played 61 matches in its history against the teams that currently make up the league. The Grizzlies’ record in those 61 matches: a respectable 20-36-5.
* Montana’s last win against an opponent from a Power 5 conference was a 2-1 overtime road win at Purdue on the opening weekend of the 2016 season. Its last win over a Pac-12 team was a 1-0 victory at Oregon in 2007.
* This marks the fifth time in the 25-year history of the program that Montana has just a single win through seven matches, the first time since 2010.
* The last time Montana was shut out in three consecutive matches was back in 2016. That season the Grizzlies lost 1-0 at home to Gonzaga, then went on the road and played to a 0-0 draw at San Jose State before falling 1-0 at Fresno State.
* Montana has outshot its opponents this season 88-76 but has scored just twice compared to eight times for the other team.
* The Grizzlies have collected a pair of Big Sky Conference Player of the Week awards this fall, both after Montana went 1-0-1 at home against Vermont and North Dakota.
Hallie Widner was the Offensive POW after scoring the game-winner against the Catamounts in the 90th minute in a 1-0 victory, Claire Howard the Defensive POW after posting a pair of shutouts.
* Montana ranks third in the Big Sky in shots (12.6/g) but last in the league in goals (0.29/g). … Kennedy Yost ranks second in shots (2.71/g), McKenzie Warren third (2.67/g). … Claire Howard ranks fourth in goals-against average (1.07) and save percentage (.778), and is tied for first with three shutouts.
Around the Big Sky Conference:
* Northern Colorado, picked second in the preseason coaches’ poll, behind Eastern Washington and ahead of Montana, flexed its muscles last week, picking up home wins over Wyoming, 4-1, and Grand Canyon, 2-1.
Grand Canyon took Washington State to overtime in Pullman the opening weekend of the season before falling 1-0.
* Northern Arizona, fourth in the preseason poll, is atop the league standings at 4-2-1. NAU’s two losses have come on the road at Portland and at home last week to UNLV, both by 2-0 scores. The Lumberjacks host Arizona State on Friday night, a team Montana fell to 3-1.
* Eastern Washington is 3-3-1 and has just seven goals through seven matches. That was the expected offensive drop-off for a team that scored 48 times in 23 matches last fall but suffered heavy personnel losses from that team.
* Montana isn’t the only team struggling to score goals. Weber State has just two goals through six matches and is off to a 1-2-3 start. The Wildcats’ six matches have produced just six goals between Weber State and the teams it’s played.
* Southern Utah is 1-6 and has been outscored 13-2 in its six losses. The Thunderbirds lone win? A 2-0 victory over UNLV in what is still the Rebels’ only loss of the season.
* Northern Colorado and Sacramento State are the only two teams in the league that have yet to be shut out this season.
* After getting outscored 19-2 to open the season 0-4, Idaho State picked up win No. 1 last week, 5-4 in double overtime at home against Utah State.
Upcoming: Montana will host Northern Colorado at noon at South Campus Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 23, as the program celebrates its 25-year anniversary.