Monday, November 9, 2015

Idaho title bid falls short as Big Sky Final goes to penalties again

2015 Big Sky Conference Tournament Champions - University of Northern Colorado
Perhaps the Big Sky Conference should get two automatic berths to the NCAA tournament. For the fourth time in five years the league's championship game was decided from the penalty spot as unbeaten University of Idaho came up short of capturing the Big Sky double, falling 3-0 in the tiebreaker to second-seeded Northern Colorado after a 1-1 draw.

There was one clear, decisive performance on the day, and it was from goalkeeper Madeline Burdick, who doubled her save total for the afternoon with three saves in the penalty kick shootout in the midst of a light rain to give the Bears the Big Sky championship Sunday afternoon at Guy Wicks Field in Moscow, ID.

"It is tough. It's the cruel part of our game, to go into penalties and have fate decided by circumstances like that," said Idaho Head Coach Derek Pittman. "But, it takes nothing away from our players. I thought we did an excellent job; played very, very well throughout the entire 90 minutes."

The game started off so well for the host Vandals. Twelve minutes in they finished their first quality chance of the contest for the opening goal when Kayla Watanabe made a great play in their offensive end on the right side by forcing a turnover along the touch line. The dispossessed ball went to Olivia Baggerly as she was making the run forward to help defend on the play, allowing her to transition to attack easily and serve the ball across the six. The ball scooted past Kayla Watanable and Burdick to the far post where Elexis Schlossarek dove in head first to knock the ball in over the line for the lead.

The Vandals held the better of the play for majority of the first half and created several more chances.

With the ball at the right edge of the box, Kavita Battan turned and fired high in the 21st minute.

After a Northern Colorado free kick in the 34th minute, the Vandals broke out in a quick counter that nearly put them up two. It was quickly sent up field to Baggerly, who drove into the box only to have Burdick come out and snatch the ball away at her feet before she could get a shot off 16 yards out from goal.

"We wanted to be as aggressive as much as we could, and I think we did an excellent job on the counter-attack causing Northern Colorado some problems. I think we were a little unfortunate not to get a second one. But even in the overtime we had some chances as well where their goalkeeper had to come up with big saves, and our goalkeeper Amanda had to do the same for us."

From the point of that 34th minute chance the game shifted as Northern Colorado had the better of play for the final 10 minutes of the half and outshot the hosts 10-4 in the second period.

The balanced shifted quickly too with the Bears nearly equalizing off a series of chances generated in the 35th minute. A free kick from the right touch line deep in the offensive end was sent into the box where Mariel Gutierrez got a chance, but Vandal goalkeeper Amanda Poertner made the stop with her legs. The ball wriggled loose though, giving Gutierrez a follow-up chance, but her well-struck ball was cleared off the line by an excellent defensive stop by Kelly Dopke. The pressure didn't end though as the ball was served right back in, but Poertner recovered in time to leap and catch the ball as she went up in a challenge with Bears defender Paige Morris.

Dopke came up big again in the 41st minute when the Bears threatened deep in the box, clearing the ball out of danger.

With a minute left to go in the half, Northern Colorado looked certain to tie it up with a counter on an Idaho free kick. Vandals defender Josilyn Daggs, tracking back diagonally to chase the ball down before Brooke Braden got to it, had a bad touch on the ball and her momentum carried her away from it, leaving Braden alone to run at goal from midfield after collecting the loose ball. Poertner, though, came out on the play and made herself big, forcing Braden to shoot early and send it wide left of the goal.

Things continued to go Northern Colorado's way in the second half as the Vandals struggled to build possession past the midfield against the Bears, who were able to finally find the equalizer in the 57th minute.

The play began with Jacqui Pulley dancing around with the ball on the outer left corner of the area, trying to work her way past a pair of Vandal defenders. She opted to drive down the edge of the box to the end line before cutting back to create a slight separation from Daggs and serve it into the far half of the six where Gutierrez chested it in over the line.

"It took a special goal from Northern Colorado to equalize and I am just extremely proud of our players and saddened that we are not able to move on and ultimately win the tournament championship. But, to be regular season champions and to be undefeated and set some of the records that we set, we set the bar pretty darn high this year and I couldn't be more proud of them and excited to continue coaching this group."

Northern Colorado, which fell 2-0 at home to the Vandals two weeks ago, had several other quality chances to claim the title in regulation.

In the 64th minute an Ambree Bellin corner from the left was headed on the right side of the six by Morris, but Poertner made a great diving effort to punch the ball away at the left post.

A minute later a free kick also elicited a great play by Poertner. Sent in from about 40 yards out, Gutierrez made a deft flick on the ball about 13 yards out, but the Vandal keeper dove forward to reach out, with a knee on the ground, amidst a number of players to push the ball away with her fingertips.

With each side probing to find a late winner, the match would grind its way to overtime, where the Vandals to find some new life offensively.

The hosts spent much of the first period buzzing around goal and had a number of great chances to net a golden goal winner.

Four minutes in a free kick from midfield created a series of looks, but none better than Madison Moore's shot in the 95th minute from about 32 yards out. Directed just under the bar with a bit of pace, Burdick made a great leaping save, tipping the ball over the goal to thwart the opportunity and bring a collective groan from the large crowd of 549 on hand.

"It was fantastic. To have 500-600 people here was fantastic on a lovely northwest day in northern Idaho. I thought it was great to have them out here to cheer our players on - obviously we would have loved to have given them a celebration in the end - and extremely happy to know that the sport of soccer is growing on this campus and people are excited to support us."

The resulting corner from Clara Gomez also created some anxious moments in front of goal, but the Vandals were ultimately left with nothing to show for their work.

Idaho got another last quality chance to snare the victory in the 103rd minute when Watanabe charged up the left and directed the ball inside to Battan, who turned and fired from about 17 yards only to have her effort deflected away by a challenging defender.

Northern Colorado nearly grabbed a late win in the 109th minute when Gutierrez again threatened with a 40-yard strike that Poertner dove down to stop.

In the shootout, Essence Ortiz-Laneir and Pulley made the first two shots for the Bears while Baggerly and Dopke saw their efforts stopped by Burdick. Sydney Schoeder then missed high for Northern Colorado, but Burdick made a third consecutive save on Moore's attempt, allowing Gutierrez to clinch the tiebreaker win with her shot in the front half of the fourth round.

"It was a very even match and at the end of the day somebody has to lose; and it's just a cruel way sometimes on penalties, but as a goalkeeper I know what that's like. I have been on the positive side of them, but I have been on the negative side of them too. Really, really proud of our players for how they defended, how they attacked. All of the things they did today were excellent."

Prior to Northern Arizona's 2-1 victory over Idaho State last year, the Big Sky title had been decided via penalties three consecutive times. In 2013, Weber State downed Portland State 3-0 after a scoreless draw. Another scoreless contest in 2012 finished with Idaho State winning 4-3 in penalties versus the Montana Grizzlies, who prevailed 4-3 in spot kicks the year before themselves after a 1-1 draw with Weber State. Beyond penalties, the league final has been a tight affair the past six years with the 2010 title also decided by just one goal with Sacramento State prevailing 1-0 against Northern Arizona.

Northern Colorado, which moved up to Division I from DII in 2003 and joined the Big Sky Conference in 2006 after three years as an independent, will learn its First Round NCAA opponent on Monday afternoon following the streamed draw at 1:30 pm on It's the program's first national DI tournament appearance after doing so five times at the DII level. They Bears were predicted to finish fifth in the conference's preseason poll.

Unlike Northern Colorado, which won the regular season title in 2011 and has been in the top five in the league the past three years, the Vandals' rise to league leaders was a surprise as they were tabbed to finish ninth in the 11-team league in the preseason poll.

"Preseason polls don't mean much. We knew what we had and what the players were capable of. We knew if we came together as a team and had a good locker room chemistry we would absolutely be in the thick of things when it all came down to it. I didn't necessarily expect us to go undefeated like we were or necessarily be standing here with an opportunity to win a championship, but that's what this group are capable of and I am really proud of them."

Barring a surprising second berth for the conference, the Vandals' season comes to a close with what technically goes in the books as an unbeaten conference campaign having gone 9-0-1 in the regular season and 1-0-1 in the tournament. In addition, the team will most likely head into the 2016 season with the nation's longest unbeaten run at 14 games (11-0-3) with previous leaders West Virginia and Seattle University, which the Vandals tied 0-0 early in the streak, both having lost in their respective conference tournaments.

"To have our team crawl from 200-something RPI to inside the top 100; to really not lose a game over the last 13-14 games - couldn't be more excited about this group, and it's completely unexpected."

And the rise of the Vandals is still early in the process under Pittman, who is just in his second year as head coach of the program.

"Last year was all about us putting in the identity, putting in our core values and making sure we had the players we needed that were all-in and bought all-in. And the thing that is exciting for me as a team is that when your players are all on the same page and are all bought in to the same mentality, this is what you get. So to see us leap from the first year to the second year has been fantastic. Really excited for the future of this program and to keep propelling ourselves forward."

And nearly all will return for 2016.

"Reagan Quigley has been absolutely brilliant for us. She is a true Vandal - she bleeds for us and does everything she can to help us be successful," Pittman said of his lone senior. "She brings a lot of energy off the bench. She played her role magnificently this year and I couldn't be more proud to have had an opportunity to coach her and I am disappointed and gutted for her that she wasn't able to walk away necessarily a tournament champion. But she can walk away a regular season champion and (know) her senior year they went undefeated and set all sorts of records - that's a legacy I think she will be proud to leave, knowing that she set the table and some of those standards for these younger players to strive to be part of this program. Really fortunate to have had the chance to coach her and to know that we are returning our entire starting lineup next year and she's the only we lose, makes us very excited for our future."

"We got some quality kids coming in and we want to keep taking steps forward. Today is just another stepping stone in that process. We talk to them all the time - focus on the performance, and I thought today's performance was absolutely brilliant. I can't complain one single bit. There's no once of disappointment in what my players were able to give today. We'll take time to digest this for the next week or two and we'll go from there."

Previous Tournament Coverage  ::  Thursday Quarterfinals [+]   Friday Semifinals [+] 

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