The regular season champion University of Idaho Vandals used a pair of early goals in the second semifinal Friday afternoon in Moscow to down the University of Montana 3-2 and advance to play second-seeded Northern Colorado, which prevailed in the earlier game against Sacramento State 3-1.
"We knew Montana was going to have some tired legs from yesterday - they expended a lot of energy to come up with a result against Weber State," said Idaho Head Coach Derek Pittman. "But I know Mark's teams aren't going to lay down, they aren't going to give up. He's got a good side, and so for us to be able to jump on them and score two goals early and obviously get the winner right before halftime was crucial for us. I was hoping our players could handle the pressure in the second half a little bit better than they did, but I think they learned some valuable lessons today that we are gonna have to be a little bit sharper on Sunday when we play against Northern Colorado."
The first came four minutes into the match off a Montana goal kick. Alyssa Lloyd (Spokane, WA) rose at midfield and won the initial header, sending it forward about 15 yards, where Kavita Battan, with back to goal, deftly struck a lofting ball forward behind the defense on one bounce. Kayla Watanabe won the race to the ball, chipping it past the onrushing Kailey Norman a yard inside the area and into the empty net.
"We train those things. We know that we've got certain weapons and we got players that can put the ball in the right positions, and it's just a matter of whether we are going to be hungry enough to finish them off," said Pittman. "It's something we wanted to take advantage of in the sloppy environment like we had. We needed to execute those little bitty pieces that ultimately turn into big goals for us."
Fifteen minutes into the match the Grizzlies had their first decent look at goal with Janessa Fowler missing her shot high.
Two minutes later a Lloyd free kick at right midfield created the opportunity that nearly put the Vandals in front by three. Sent toward the far post, the ball was was dummied at the top of the box by Baggerly. Clara Gomez was right behind her, however, and had to chase the ball down after it passed her, sending it back to the top of the box where Baggerly flicked it toward the left post. Watanabe, initially with her back to goal, made a rapid turn to unleash a shot off the volley from about seven yards that rose quickly rose and smashed into the crossbar.
Deep down in the right corner, she launched the ball all the way in a few yards shy of the near post where Lloyd rose up and got a slight deflection on the ball as it dropped down in front of goal. Norman and a defender missed on their initial attempts to collect and clear, allowing it to bounce toward the back post where Gomez connected with it. Her touch, though, merely sent it squarely back across the mouth and in the mad scramble for the ball Megan Goo knocked it in from about two yards out.
"Idaho is very good at their set pieces and we knew that coming in," said Montana Head Coach Mark Plakorus. "We knew it was very dangerous, but unfortunately we didn't deal with it very well today. We got ourselves in a pretty big hole. I was really proud of the kids in the second half. We fought like crazy to get ourselves a chance, but we just ran out of time. "
Down three, the Grizzlies were still looking for a third championship appearance in five years and did not pack it in and call it quits and got within one before the final whistle.
"I thought it was really good on our part. We could have just given up, but we didn't. I am really proud of the girls and their fight. We kept playing and we got some good looks, some corner kick opportunities and some other good shots at goal. I am proud of them because we never stopped. That's something we can take forward and move on," Plakorus said of the second half rally.
"Unfortunate our season ends like this, especially for our lone senior Mackenzie Akins cuz she has given us everything this year. I couldn't be more proud of the young lady in all that she shouldered this year being the only senior and then losing the players we lost before the season even started, and then during the season. Everything went on her, and she was amazing this year. It was unfortunate it came to this end, but I am just really proud of this group."
Just like the Vandals, Montana used a quick strike to grab some much-needed momentum and breathe life into the belief they could rally, scoring four minutes into the second half. A corner to the top of the six from Mary Gintz was nodded perfectly past a diving Amanda Poertner.
"I thought she was just fantastic again today," Plakorus said about Akins. "Everybody we play in this conference they double or triple-team her. I think she's one of the best players we have in this conference, and I thought she played great in her last game for us."
The two sides battled it out the rest of the way trying to gain control.
Idaho nearly restored the three-goal margin in the 73rd when a shot from 30 yards by Baggerly tested Norman, who slapped it down and collected it on the bounce.
Three minutes later Montana thought they had the crucial second goal when the ball was quickly played up the field after a goal kick similar to Idaho's opening strike. Akins got to it first, but Poertner, who had come out on the play, made a great reaction save about 15 yards out from her goal to deny the opportunity.
"She made a couple big saves that were huge," Pittman said about Poertner. "We knew that they would have the wind in the second half and they'd be coming at us a little bit, they were gonna high pressure us a little bit more and try to be more direct.
With 10 minutes left Reagan Quigley unleashed a shot from the top of the box that tested Norman again, but she easily handled it to keep the Griz in it.
Just as it appeared Idaho was going to be able to run out the clock, Montana stole a goal to get within one with two minutes remaining. With possession well down the right side just off the touchline, Gintz launched a high, hopeful ball to the near post to Ashlee Pedersen (Spokane, WA). As the ball came down just inside the six, she Pedersen rose up with a defender behind her and the Poertner trying to reach over both to get the ball, but with her arm raised, she slightly redirected the ball with her hand past the keeper. It fell into the path of Kaitlin Crowell, who calmly one-timed it between the defender on the line and Poertner's outstretched hand as she tried to recover for the save.
There was not quite enough time left, however, for the Grizzlies, who rallied in the season with three wins in the last four conference games to reach the tournament, to make the rally complete Friday as the Vandals secured a trip to the Big Sky championship game.
"We started slow because we got stung a little bit before the season started with losing Hallie Widner and Savannah Witt for the year. And then Kenzie Akins didn't even have a preseason because she was injured. It started kind of slow too because with teams we played were really, really good. When you're playing Washington State, Purdue, Iowa, Creighton and teams like that, it's a difficult schedule. And then we lost Jamie Simon for her career as well.
"It took us a while for the younger kids to understand what we needed them to do and how hard they had to play. But we found our rhythm late and gave ourselves a chance to get in this tournament. It was hard to do because we were the lone wolf this year in this conference in that every opponent in conference we played it was their only game of the weekend. That's a tough hall to go through but we fought through it, we got in here and we won our quarterfinal game yesterday. Just didn't happen for us today."
SACRAMENTO STATE 1 :: 3 UNIV OF NORTHERN COLORADO
Like Idaho, second-seeded Northern Colorado perhaps took advantage of a tired opponent with an early goal, scoring eight minutes in off of a corner from Rebecca Lancia that was put away on a half-volley by Kassy Castillo.
The Hornets, against the run of play however, managed to even things up in the 13th minute when a free kick form the sideline by Rachel Leonard was finished by Adaurie Dayak.
Northern Colorado, though, took firm control on the outcome, scoring twice more before the break. Lancia delivered another fruitful corner in the 27th that Mariel Gutierrez knocked home and then scored herself on a ball she crossed in that bounced in the six and was missed by a teammate, freezing the keeper as it continued toward the back corner of the goal instead of being knocked in at the near post.
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