The Big Sky Conference kicks off league play this weekend with all four of the programs within the Inland NW Soccer News coverage area matched up with one another as the Gem State pair of Idaho State and Idaho travel to face Eastern Washington and Montana, respectively, on Friday before switching locales for Sunday's fixtures.
Three of the four are slated to compete for the conference championship and return to the postseason tournament.
In the preseason coaches poll, the Idaho Vandals - last season's regular season champions - were chosen to repeat as the top side with Eastern Washington picked second and Montana fourth. Idaho State, meanwhile, was chosen to finish last.
Here's a quick look at each of the four schools and the rest of the field...
As the host of the Big Sky tournament last fall, the Vandals used home field to down Montana 3-2 in the semifinals, but came up short in a shootout against Northern Colorado after a 1-1 draw in the championship. The result did, however, leave the Vandals' unbeaten run intact at 14 games at the close of the season, ranking as the best current streak in the nation as they headed into the 2016 campaign.
The streak did not last long, though, as the Vandals dropped their first match, 1-0, at South Dakota and have struggled to fulfill the hopes of improving on last year with a 3-3-2 record coming out of the non-conference slate, five of which were on the road. The good news is, the Vandals had a similar record a year ago at 4-4-1 before going unbeaten through their Big Sky slate. Among the results, though, are wins against Seattle University and Boise State on the road - two sides they lost against a year ago. They also tied WCC sides Gonzaga and Saint Mary's.
All five All-Conference First Team players - Amanda Poertner (So), Amanda Pease (Sr), Josilyn Daggs (Jr), Alyssa Lloyd (Sr) and Kavita Battan (Sr) - are all back this season for the Vandals along with two Second Team selections - Olivia Baggerly (So) and Clara Gomez (Sr).
EASTERN WASHINGTON #####
After vastly exceeding expectations a year ago, the Eagles suffered disappointment in the conference tournament in an opening round loss to Sacramento State. They opened the campaign with a 6-1-1 record and used four consecutive wins at the start of the Big Sky campaign to fuel their flight to a third-place finish at 6-2-2.
This year, the non-conference slate also went well for the Eags. Their 6-1-1 record includes five victories in which they scored three goals and a 3-1-1 road record. And that does not include a match against local foe Gonzaga, which was coming off a win over Washington State, in which they were ahead 2-1 before the contest was cancelled due to lightning.
The Eagles return all of their All-Conference selections this year, including Big Sky Offensive MVP Chloe Williams, a junior who recently became the program's all-time leading point scorer. Second Team choices M'Kenna Hayes (Jr), Laci Rennaker (Jr), Jenny Chavez (So) and Savannah Hoekstra (Jr) make up the rest of the returning honorees.
Big Sky regular season champions two years ago and co-champions four seasons ago, perhaps the Grizzlies will have another big run and keep the pattern of winning in the even years going. Last year the Griz limped into the Big Sky campaign with a 3-5-1 non-conference campaign and found themselves in a hole in the league table after dropping two on the road on opening weekend. They righted the ship, though, and finished the rest of the campaign with only two more losses to reach the postseason with a 5-4-1 record.
This year's non-conference slate started off well with a 3-0-1 mark in the first two weekends, but since the calendar turned to September things have slipped with a 1-2-1 mark for a 4-3-2 record going into the league campaign. The good news is the Montana defense is playing outstanding soccer as the only game in which they have allowed more than one goal was a 2-1 loss at Washington State as they have allowed just six in nine games. The bad news is the offense has not scored more than one goal in a game since their season-opening trip to Indiana, tallying four in the seven since and none in the past three.
The Grizzlies only featured one senior on their squad a year ago in All-Conference selection Mackenzie Akins. Other honorees returning, though, are Tess Brenneman and goalkeeper Kailey Norman (Sr).
IDAHO STATE #####
The Bengals were a woeful 1-17-1 a year ago with their only win, 2-1 in overtime, coming against a Westminster College program that was in its first DII season after moving from the NAIA. They did, though, earn a surprising 1-1 draw against Boise State. It was no surprise they were picked to finish last in the preseason coaches poll with only one coach, based on the vote totals, selecting them to finish 10th.
This year, ISU is off to a bit of a better start with three non-conference wins. They topped Southland playoff teams from a year ago Houston Baptist and Sam Houston State, though the latter is currently in the midst of a nine-game losing streak after winning their opener. Both of those wins were at home while the other win came against DII BYU-Hawaii in Honolulu at the University of Hawaii. Since that win versus SHS, however, the Bengals have dropped the last three at home by a combined tally of 11-1.
Idaho State did boast All-Conference First Team sophomore and Golden Boot winner Maria Sanchez a year ago. The U20 Mexican International became a big offseason focal point though as she departed the program (Initial Story [+]) and has since accused the school of trying to block the advancement of her development and career (Second Story [+])
Northern Colorado (picked to finish third) goes into the conference campaign with a 5-3-1 record with all three losses coming on the road, two of them 1-0 results in the midst of a span of 3-0-3 in which they scored only three goals... Northern Arizona (picked fifth) is 3-5-1 after its non-conference campaign, which included two 1-0 victories at home and a narrow 3-2 overtime win at Colorado College in their last outing... Sacramento State (picked sixth, tied) is 2-4-2 heading into the league campaign and is winless in their last four matches (0-2-2) - all at home... Weber State (picked sixth, tied) also has not won of late, going 0-3 in the last three with a combined score of 1-8 as they head into the Big Sky season 2-4-1... Portland State (picked eighth) also comes into the league campaign with two wins, but have posted them in the last three outings to bring their record to 2-6... Southern Utah (picked ninth) is coming into the season with their first victory in seven non-conference games, but the 3-2 result came at home against DII Dixie State... North Dakota (picked tenth) is 1-5-2 and are in the midst of a six-game winless run (0-5-1) and have scored just two goals in their eight games.
INWsn PROJECTIONS #####
It looks like the season is going to be a real split between the top few and the rest of the league based on how teams are performing coming into the season. Look for Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and Northern Colorado to pick up where they left off last year while everyone else scrapes to grab the final two Big Sky tournament berths. Home games versus the top four will probably play a big factor in determining who finished in those coveted fifth and sixth spots come the end of the campaign.
INWsn's Projected Finish
1 - Eastern Washington
2 - Montana
3 - Idaho
4 - Northern Colorado
5 - Sacramento State
6 - Portland State
7 - Northern Arizona
8 - Weber State
9 - Idaho State
10 - North Dakota
11 - Southern Utah