Mark Plakorus is in his second year
Aug. 1, 2012
The Montana soccer team, which opened its season Wednesday morning at South Campus Stadium with its first practice session, has every right to be excited about the 2012 season. The defending Big Sky Conference tournament champions return every starter and letterwinner from last year's team and the players who accounted for 26 of the team's 27 goals and all 21 assists.
That excitement for the coming season was no more patent than last Wednesday, when the Grizzlies met on the track at Dornblaser Field for their first round of preseason fitness testing. Twenty-three of the team's 25 returning players were on hand, a full week before the official start of practice.
It was notable because 1) 18 of those 25 returners hail from outside of Montana and 2) it just didn't work like that before.
"That never would have happened in the past," senior co-captain Lauren Costa said. "In previous years it might have been 10 or 12. And everybody is coming in fit. It's been a big difference."
Another big difference: At Wednesday morning's season-opening practice, when the 25 returners were joined by the team's eight newcomers, 32 of the team's 33 players were healthy and practicing, a positive change from previous years when the injured numbered enough that they could have played their own seven-aside tournament off to the side.
"They had a much better idea of where they needed to be this time around," Plakorus said about his returning players and their summer preparation.
"Everything last year was new for them. This year they know what to expect, and that's made them confident in who they are and what they expect out of themselves. They are definitely excited about what they've created."
Last year the team had just one senior, Jaymie Brown, and she played only 125 minutes in seven matches. This year's team is lousy with upperclassmen, with six experienced seniors and seven juniors.
Among the seniors, defender Lauren Costa and forward Erin Craig were first-team All-Big Sky Conference selections a year ago, while midfielder Lauren McCreath, this year's co-captain along with Costa, was honorable mention.
Craig led the Big Sky Conference in goals in 2011 with 10, three more than any other Big Sky player.
Among the juniors, midfielder India Watne was also first-team All-Big Sky. She led the league in assists with eight, three more than anyone else in the league.
If Plakorus had a five-year plan in mind when he was hired, something that spelled out the steps it would take to return Montana to the top of the Big Sky Conference, it's doubtful he was thinking (well, maybe he was thinking, but he wasn't saying) Big Sky championship after year one.
A trophy seemed unlikely as late as mid-October, after a loss at Weber State concluded a 1-9-2 stretch that followed the buzz-worthy 3-0-0 start. The Grizzlies were close to making the jump, but championship ready?
Back-to-back wins over Idaho State and Northern Arizona gave Montana enough points to make their first Big Sky tournament since 2008. Shootout wins over Northern Colorado, in the semifinals, and Weber State, in the championship, was followed by a competitive loss to eventual national champion Stanford in the NCAA's first round.
That strong finish led to a something different hanging in the air at Wednesday's practice, and it's a good thing: expectations.
"Teams are going to be out for us to prove that what happened last year was a fluke," Costa said. "But we know it wasn't. We plan on having that type of success again."
A more complete season outlook will be coming out next week. Also look for a photo gallery from the team's annual photo day, which is taking place Tuesday, and the start of another round of "Meet the Griz," an inside look at the team's newcomers.
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