It's go time: Griz open season on the road

Allie Simon scored twice in Saturday's exhibition victory

Allie Simon scored twice in Saturday's exhibition victory

Aug. 15, 2012

The Montana soccer team, the defending Big Sky Conference tournament champion, will open its 2012 regular season this week with road matches at Wyoming and Air Force. The Grizzlies will meet the Cowgirls Friday at 4:30 p.m. at Laramie, Wyo., and face the Falcons Sunday at 1 p.m., at Colorado Springs, Colo.

Friday's match is the season opener for Wyoming as well. Lamar is acting as Montana's de facto travel partner this weekend. The Cardinals play at Air Force Friday and at Wyoming Sunday.

Follow the action: Friday's match can be tracked through the Wyoming soccer Twitter feed: Sunday's match can also be followed through the same medium:

What they did in the preseason: Montana defeated Carroll 5-1 Saturday afternoon at South Campus Stadium in the Grizzlies' lone exhibition match. ... Wyoming lost at Denver, 2-1, and topped Colorado School of Mines at Laramie on Tuesday, 2-1. ... Air Force played a pair of exhibition matches at Northern Colorado Saturday and Monday. The Falcons won the first match 2-1, the Bears the second by the same score. UNC is the defending Big Sky Conference regular-season champion and was picked second to Montana's third in the Big Sky preseason coaches' poll.

Seasons in review: Montana went 6-12-4 in 2011, doubling its win total from 2010, and finished fourth in the Big Sky Conference at 3-3-1 in league matches. The Grizzlies upset No. 1 Northern Colorado and No. 3 Weber State, both in shootouts, to win the Big Sky tournament title and advance to their first NCAA tournament since 2000. Montana lost to eventual national champion Stanford 3-0 in the opening round.

Wyoming went 12-6-4 last fall, the most wins in program history, and finished third in the Mountain West Conference at 3-1-2 behind New Mexico and San Diego State. The Cowgirls defeated TCU, 2-1 in overtime, in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals and knocked off SDSU, 1-0 in the semifinals. They were the first postseason wins in team history. Wyoming's season came to an end with a 2-0 loss to New Mexico in the tournament title match.



Air Force went 6-10-3 and tied TCU for last in the Mountain West at 1-5-0. The Falcons did not advance to the postseason.

What they have back: Montana returns 11 starters this fall and 19 letterwinners. The players who scored 26 of the team's 27 goals last fall and who accounted for all 21 assists are back, as are the keepers who played all 2,097 minutes in goal. ... Wyoming returns nine starters and 17 letterwinners, Air Force eight starters and 16 letterwinners.

Where they were picked: Montana was selected by the 10 Big Sky soccer coaches to finish third this fall. Wyoming was picked fifth in the eight-team Mountain West Conference, Air Force seventh.

Who to watch for: Montana returns all three of its first-team All-Big Sky selections from last fall: forward Erin Craig, who led the Big Sky with 10 goals, midfielder India Watne, who led the conference in assists with eight, and defender Lauren Costa. The Grizzlies also have goalkeeper Kristen Hoon back. Hoon played every minute in goal the final 12 matches of 2011 and enters her senior season as the team's top option in net.

Among its eight returning starters, Wyoming welcomes back its leading scorer and top goalkeeper. Sophomore forward Sara Paul led the team and finished third in the Mountain West last fall with eight goals to earn first-team All-MWC and Freshman of the Year honors. Senior keeper Courtney Merkle finished the 2011 season with five shutouts and led the Mountain West in save percentage (.845).

Air Force does not have any Mountain West honorees among its eight returning starters.

Match Notes

* came out earlier this week with its Big Sky preseason all-conference teams. Montana senior forward Erin Craig was named the Big Sky preseason Offensive Player of the Year, senior defender Lauren Costa the Defensive Player of the Year.

Craig and Costa were joined on the preseason all-conference first team by junior midfielder India Watne. Sophomore midfielder Tyler Adair was named second team.

* Both College Sports Madness and Top Drawer Soccer have Big Sky preseason favorite Portland State on their mock NCAA tournament brackets as the league's presumptive tournament champion and representative.

* What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, when coach Mark Plakorus was in his first year and getting his team prepared to travel to Boise State, he was just trying to field a team with 11 healthy players. This week he had 31 of his 33 players mostly healthy and practicing.

"Last year our injuries had us to the point that I was worried about even fielding a competitive team," he said Monday. "I think we only had 11 healthy players at this point.

"As of (Monday) we had 31 training. It makes my job harder when it comes time to pick the right team for this trip, but that's a decision I don't mind having to make after last year, when we were wondering how we were even going to play our first weekend."

* With so many returning players this season -- Montana lost only one senior last fall -- the Grizzlies are much further along in their training than a year ago on Aug. 14.

"Last year I had to do a lot more teaching in terms of how we wanted to implement the things we wanted to do and how all the pieces fit together," Plakorus said.

"This year there is not as much teaching. It's bringing the freshmen up to speed and refining some things with the returners. We're able to do more to get us ready to play at a higher level right off the bat than we were able to do last year."

And Montana opened the 2011 season with three straight wins.

* Montana and Wyoming met last season in both teams' second match at Boise State's tournament. Craig scored in the 84th minute to break a 1-1 tie and give the Grizzlies a 2-1 victory. The loss dropped the Cowgirls to 0-2, but they would go 12-4-4 the rest of the season, with wins over the rest of their Big Sky Conference opponents: Eastern Washington, 2-1, Weber State, 1-0, and Northern Colorado, 2-1.

Wyoming had a 14-game stretch last season when the Cowgirls allowed no more than a single goal to an opponent.

"With the number of players they have coming back off the team they had last year, when they had the most wins in school history, they have a right to be very confident," Plakorus said. "They proved they are a very, very good team.

"We're going to go down there and play hard and see where we are as a team and hopefully come out on top like we did last year, but we won't go into it thinking we should win this year just because we did last year."

* Montana and Wyoming have met six times previously, with the Grizzlies holding a 4-2 advantage. Montana has a 2-1 record in games at Laramie, with a 2-1 overtime win in 2008 in the teams' last meeting at the Madrid Sports Complex.

* Former Wyoming coach Danny Sanchez, who led the Cowgirls to a four-year record of 37-34-11 and was the 2011 Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year, is now at Colorado. He was replaced by a coach who knows plenty about Montana and has had plenty of success against the Grizzlies.

Former North Dakota State coach Peter Cuadrado was hired by Wyoming in January after a nine-year run with the Bison that resulted in a 93-58-17 record and an NCAA tournament appearance in 2010. Cuadrado and NDSU beat Montana twice last season, both in convincing shutouts: 4-0 at Missoula and 3-0 at Fargo. Both games were 2-0 at the half.

"They put a whooping on us both times we played (North Dakota State) last year," Plakorus said. "I don't think Wyoming could have hired anybody better for their position, because Pete does a great job.

"He knows the game, and his teams are always ready to compete. I have no doubt he'll have his team ready to go (Friday) with how he wants them to play."

* Sunday's match at the Academy provides an interesting storyline. Plakorus spent 11 years as an officer in the Air Force, his final three (1999-2001) while stationed at the Academy as a Falcons assistant coach (among other duties).

This will be Plakorus's fifth trip back to Colorado Springs as a visiting coach, but his first time as a visiting head coach. He made the trip four times during his six years as an assistant at TCU.

"It's always a big deal for me, both because of my time in the service and because the Academy is where I really got my start in the collegiate women's game. It opened a lot of doors for me," Plakorus said.

* Plakorus's time at the Academy and six years coaching against the Falcons while he was at TCU gives him an easy and succinct scouting report to pass along to his team. "Like all Academy teams, they are going to play with everything they have. They are all competitors and will give you everything they have every second, so I expect an extremely competitive match."

* Plakorus's connection with Air Force also extends to fourth-year coach Larry Friend. Between the two coaches they've been coaching at the Academy almost uninterrupted since 1992, but never at the same time.

Friend was an assistant from 1992-96, Plakorus from 1999-2001 and Friend from 2002-08 before getting the head job.

* Montana and Air Force have met three times previously and not since 2003. The Grizzlies won 5-0 at home in 1997 and 3-1 and 1-0 at the Academy in 1998 and 2003.

* Montana's five home matches this season (Sept. 14, New Mexico State; Sept. 21, Idaho State; Sept. 23, Weber State; Oct. 5, Northern Colorado; Oct. 7, North Dakota) will all be streamed free of charge through Big Sky TV. More details will be provided in the previews of those games.

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