Jumping forward to this season, the preseason poll has the three co-champions finishing in the top three once again, but in the poll Idaho State and Portland State received the same amount of points (68) with Montana not far back in third (65). Weber State and Northern Colorado were neck-and-neck for fourth and fifth, respectively. WSU joined the top three and Northern Arizona, sixth in the poll, as a group of five teams that received a vote to finish first in the league this season, a list that was topped by the Bengals with four votes. Meanwhile, the other INW side, Eastern Washington, was selected to finish eighth.
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The season kicked off Thursday with a pair of games that featured all three INW region teams. Idaho State edged visiting Eastern Washington 1-0 and Montana fell 2-0 in Utah to Weber State. The Grizzlies and Bengals square off Saturday in a rematch of the conference title game with the Eagles traveling to face Weber State, one of two teams to beat ISU last year.
EASTERN WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
The Eagles got off to a difficult start in their non-conference schedule, falling in their first five matches - all against quality opposition - before defeating the University of Idaho, which is returning to the conference next year. A year ago the Eagles were one of two teams to hand Idaho State a loss, but the early season 2-1 victory over the Bengals didn't carry onward as they went 3-3-3 in the conference and suffered big 4-0 losses to the other co-champions Portland State and Montana.
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The Bengals got off to a slow start last year on the road with a 1-1 draw in Montana and a 2-1 loss to Eastern Washington, but plugged away the rest of the season with a 6-1-0 record, though four of the six victories were close-fought 2-1 decisions. As Big Sky tournament hosts, the Bengals needed penalties (4-3) to get past Weber State after a 1-1 draw before the showdown with Montana in the final. After claiming the conference title and a berth in the NCAA tournament, the Bengals were knocked out of the national tourney 3-0 by powerhouse Stanford, who was ranked first in the nation.
This year, the Bengals were extremely hot at the beginning of the non-conference slate, which included wins over Boise State and future Big Sky member Idaho. They edged the Broncos, who have gone 2-0-1 against PAC-12 opponents in their impressive non-conference performance, in overtime 2-1 and then blanked the Vandals 2-0. After the win against Idaho, however, the Bengals lost five consecutive before finishing their non-conference slate with a 1-0 overtime win at Wyoming.
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The Grizzlies finished the non-conference slate with a 3-4-3 record, going unbeaten at home with a 3-0-2 mark while having a rough go of it on the road with a winless 0-4-0 record, though that consisted of distant trips to California and Nebraska.
Last year Montana opened the season with a 1-2-1 record and just two goals in the four outings, both at home in a 1-1 draw with ISU and 1-0 win against Weber State. But after the pair of 2-0 losses at Portland State and Sacramento State the Grizzlies went on a five-game win streak, shutting out every opponent along the way to claiming the share in the regular season conference title. They narrowly won their conference tournament opener, 3-2, against Portland State in Pocatello before falling in penalties to host Idaho State in the final.
Eastern Washington (9) - Brianna Brannan (Kennewick, WA), Marianne Johnson (Pasco, WA), Hailie McClure (Spokane, WA), Taylor Berdar (Spokane, WA), Amanda Bliesner (Spokane, WA), Nicole Medeiros (Hayden, ID), Laci Rennaker (Spokane, WA), Shayla Weiler (Spokane, WA), Paige Galloway (Spokane, WA)… Idaho State (3) - Katherine Roberts (Pocatello, ID), Whitney Peterson (Meridian, ID), Brooke Tryon (Meridian, ID)… Montana (8) - Mary Makris (Emigrant, MT), Maddey Frey (Kalispell, MT), Chloe Rector (Billings, MT), Britta Hjalmarsson (Bozeman, MT), Trae Rocheleau (Bozeman, MT), Carley Duvall (Boise, ID), Stephanie Carl (Missoula, MT), Tess Brenneman (Kalispell, MT)… Northern Arizona (2) - Ashlynn Curnow (Boise, ID), Rachel Earll (Meridian, ID)… Portland State (5) - Torrie Morris (Bend, OR), Lexi Greenwood (Spokane, WA), Caitlin Plese (Spokane Shine), Melissa Bishop (Eastern Washington Univ), Maggie Coleman (Hermiston, OR)… Southern Utah (1) - Chandler Yost (Pocatello, ID)