Saturday, November 1, 2014

BIG SKY: Montana edges Eastern Washington to finish unbeaten; Idaho State advances to playoffs

The Big Sky Tournament is set, and kicks off Thursday in Missoula - Details below
The Grizzlies were looking to finish an unbeaten season in the Big Sky and Eastern Washington was playing for postseason positioning in a contest that could have gone either way a week ahead of the Big Sky Conference tournament. In the end, a second half goal for Montana proved to be the difference as the Grizzlies prevailed 1-0 in Cheney.

Photo Gallery [+]
It was a game over two halves on the cool, overcast day with the visitors having the better of the play in the first half and the hosts pressing matters at the offensive end for the better of the second period. Both teams had several chances in each half, but it was a goal against the run of play in the 67th minute that decided matters when Tyler Addair found Jamie Simon, who scored on a first-time strike from the top of the box with a low roller that caromed in off the post, narrowly beating the diving Nathalie Schwery.

"Just very proud of the girls," said Montana head coach Mark Plakorus. "It's something they established as one of their goals last January when we got back to school. They wanted to win this conference and possibly host the tournament. I give credit to these kids - they just made the commitment and did the hard work, and coming together as a team. They're the ones that did it. Just really proud of em and happy for them."

The Grizzlies created some dangerous chances in the early going. Just three minutes into the contest a ball into the box came back out to the top of the area, setting up a nice shot from about 16 yards by Chloe Torres on the right side that flashed past the left post.

In the 11th minute a nice give-and-go between Hallie Widner and Tyler Adair near the top left of the box created a dangerous opportunity before Kayla Sutter broke it up just before they could get a shot off.

Eastern began to show some promise at the other end, but was unable to get any quality looks on goal before Montana returned to prominence in the attack. In the 18th minute Mackenzie Akins beat a defender at the top of the box to turn and fire from about 17 yards, forcing a nice save from Schwery.

Two minutes later an open Paytyn Wheeler got the ball at the left corner o fthe area and fired from the top of the box, sending the shot into the side netting.

In the 24th minute a throw-in in the offensive end to Chloe Williams near the end line was sent on to Savannah Hoekstra, who fired high from the sharp angle.

In the 33rd minute the Eagles came the closest to getting the opener when a Cassie Black shot from 15 yards out on the left toward the far post forced goalkeeper Kailey Norman to make a diving stop. The rebound fell to Hoekstra, but Norman rebounded just in time to stuff her attempt at the post.

Two minutes later a goal kick from Schwery bounced through the midfield, putting Black and Hoekstra racing toward goal. Norman did well to come out and tackle the ball away at the very edge of the box as Black was shooting. The loose ball eventually found its way to the head of Hoekstra, who nodded it just over the bar and into the top netting just as Norman had recovered to the open goal.

With just over two minutes left Shayla Weiler made a run up from the midfield on the right side before dishing the ball to Hoekstra near the corner. Hoekstra crossed the ball into the six from just off the end line, finding Black for the finish about 14 yards out that was just high.

"I thought our first half we played really well the first 15-20 minutes and then our level kind of dropped," said Plakorus. "Give credit to Eastern Washington; they really came on strong there, and probably could of had a couple and we were fortunate to keep it out,"

The Eagles came out in the second half and held the better of play and outshot the Grizzlies seven shots to three in the period to become just the second Big Sky opponent this season to outshoot the Grizzlies in a game this season (16-10). However, they never got any better looks at goal than the few in the first half, though there were a few headers on free kicks and corners that could have changed the complexion of the game.

"In the second half I thought we just kept battling," said Plakorus. "Thought the goal we scored was taken well; and then just kinda locked it down - really didn't give them another chance. That's a good team. Chad, Max and Rich have been doing a great job with them. It's gonna be fun to get to the conference tournament next week and see what happens."

Schwery would finish the game with four saves for the Eagles while her counterpart, Norman, would register seven stops total at the other end in the sophomore's ninth shutout of the season.

"I'm pretty proud of those kids. We just played a really good team - obviously, they haven't lost in conference all year," said first year Eastern Washington coach Chad Bodnar. "I don't have anything to fault in terms of our effort and work rate or kids not playing the way we asked them to play. We just missed some chances that I think we could have put away and made it a different game. I am very proud of our group with that performance today."

"That's a good team that we just played, and I thought we showed well. I just told the kids the same thing. I think if you take from where we were at the beginning of the season to where we are now, it's been leaps and bounds in terms of what we've done as a group and the way we play. There's nothing to hang our heads about; I'm proud of our performance."

Eastern would ultimately finish as the final seed in the Big Sky tournament as every other result went against them, but the five victories marked the best tally in a conference campaign for the Eagles, who were picked to finish 10th in the 11-team conference in the preseason poll.

"We would really have liked that bye in the first round obviously. I think that's what everybody was looking to try to do, but I think three through six is pretty much the same," Bodnar said. "It's just gonna be a dog fight. If our kids fight like they did today and play like they did today, I think we can win a game or two and make a run at it."

"I think our team has improved dramatically over the course of the season and like I said I have no qualms with the way that we played today. That was a good team and they finished the chance that they had. That's how it goes. We just got to be sharper in front of goal. During the season you have your ups and downs at that, and I hope we get sharp going into next week and finish our chances, and I think we will be alright."

Eastern will head to Missoula next week with the confidence of knowing that they can perform well on the road. Amazingly they were 1-4 at home in Big Sky play and 4-1 away from home, including a 1-0 victory just two weeks ago in Flagstaff against upcoming first round opponent Northern Arizona. Chloe Williams netted the deciding tally in the contest.

"We just said every game we've lost, we bounced back and won the next one; so that bodes well for next week," Bodnar said. "We've done well on the road, for whatever reason, and we've always bounced back. And, I believe that we will and those kids will come back and play hard in that first round game we will play in Montana."

Similar to Eastern, Montana exceeded preseason expectations, shattering the fifth-place projection placed on them prior to the campaign by becoming just the fourth team since 2001 to go unbeaten in the Big Sky.

"Our conference is a lot more difficult than people think it is. There is not much that separates the teams, and so it's going to be a battle," Plakorus said of the upcoming Big Sky tournament. "It's going to be interesting to see how the teams handle the elements because it's been raining in Missoula the past two weeks, and it's going to keep raining. But, I think its going to be good soccer, and we are just excited we have a chance to keep playing."

Elsewhere in the Big Sky Conference

Thursday, October 30 

Idaho 0-8 Illinois State  (NL)
With their season done and awaiting the other results to see if they can remain in playoff position, the Vandals embarked on a final non-league game. The hosts scored five in the first half en route to the big win.  MORE [+]

"Overall, I'm very happy with my first year as a Vandal," first-year coach Derek Pittman told INWsoccernews over the weekend. "I believe our young roster showed some real promise in the Big Sky going 3-2-1 against the top six finishers. We learned that we can't take any of our opponents lightly and that we can also compete with anyone in our conference. We started 9-10 freshmen and sophomores every game and have some quality young players that matured a lot this season. It was fantastic that we were able to get a taste of being near the top of the standings and will give us the fuel to come back even hungrier next season to challenge for a Big Sky Championship."

Friday, October 31

Idaho State 2-1 Weber State 
Facing a must-win situation against an already-eliminated Wildcat squad, the Bengals advanced to the Big Sky tournament the hard way, rallying for the win. The hosts took the lead in the 50th minute of the contest, but Idaho State answered with the equalizer in the 67th. A ball into the box was headed out by a defender marking Amanda Ellsworth, going right to Whitney Peterson for the lengthy shot from a sharp angle on the left side into the far side netting. Ellsworth was credited with an assist, which would make her the all-time leading point scorer in the Big Sky Conference with 82, but video shows she never touched the ball. Five minutes later Maria Sanchez netted the winner on a great shot from the top of the box after a corner had been headed out of the box. Lauren Bermudez collected the ball at the top of the penalty arc and was able to slip it forward to her right to the open striker for the finish.  MORE [+]   UPDATE (11/4): The Big Sky Conference changed the scoring on the goal, removing Ellsworth's assist. She officially finishes tied for the league record in points, as well as goals.

Sacramento State 0-2 Portland State 
North Dakota 0-6 Northern Colorado 
Southern Utah 0-1 Northern Arizona

Final Big Sky Conference Standings
Montana 8-0-2... 26 points
Portland State 6-2-2... 20
Northern Arizona 5-2-3... 18
Northern Colorado 5-4-1... 16
Idaho State 5-4-1... 16
Eastern Washington 5-5-0... 15
Southern Utah 4-4-2... 14
Idaho 4-4-2... 15
Sacramento State 4-6-0... 12
Weber State 2-7-1... 7
North Dakota 0-10-0... 0

Big Sky Tournament (@ Univ of Montana)

Thursday, November 6 -- First Round
3 Northern Arizona v 6 Eastern Washington  11:00 MST
4 Northern Colorado v 5 Idaho State  2:00 MST

Friday, November 7 -- Semifinals
NAU / EWU v 2 Portland State  11:00 MST
UNC / ISU v 1 Montana  2:00 MST

Sunday, November 9 -- Championship  12:00 MST

««« Photos: Gerald Barnhart »»»