Griz face first Big Sky road tests
Sept. 26, 2012
The University of Montana soccer team will play its first Big Sky Conference road matches this week when it plays at Portland State and Sacramento State. The Grizzlies will meet the Vikings Friday at 2 p.m. (MT) at Hillsboro Stadium in Hillsboro, Ore., and the Hornets Sunday at 2 p.m. (MT) at Hornet Field on the Sac State campus.
Where they stand: Through the first of five weekends of league matches for the 10 Big Sky Conference soccer teams, Montana (5-4-2, 1-0-1 BSC) sits alone in second place with four points after playing to a 1-1 draw with Idaho State Friday and beating Weber State 1-0 Sunday.
Portland State (3-6-1, 1-1-0 BSC) and Sacramento State (3-5-2, 1-1-0 BSC) are two of five teams tied for third with three points. Both won last weekend at North Dakota (SAC 1, UND 0; PSU 3, UND 1) and both lost at Northern Colorado (UNC 1, PSU 0; UNC 2, SAC 0).
UNC (4-4-2, 2-0-0 BSC), with its two home shutouts last weekend, sits atop the Big Sky standings with six points.
What to expect: Games that end 1-0. Big Sky teams opened their league schedules with nine matches last weekend. Five of the nine ended up 1-0 and seven of the nine were ties or one-goal matches.
Most recently: Montana went 1-0-1 last weekend with a 1-1 draw with Idaho State on Friday and a 1-0 shutout of Weber State Sunday. The Bengals went ahead in the 58th minute Friday, and it appeared the Grizzlies were on their way to defeat until sophomore Paytyn Wheeler tied it in the 89th minute with her second goal of the season off an assist from senior Erin Craig.
On Sunday senior Lauren Costa headed in junior Mary Makris's corner kick in the 17th minute, just the second time Montana has scored in the first half this season and the first time since the season opener at Wyoming. The goal held up as the game-winner as senior keeper Kristen Hoon made four saves for her eighth career shutout.
Portland State, the preseason Big Sky Conference favorite, suffered a disappointing 1-0 defeat at Northern Colorado Friday when a PSU defender was responsible for an own goal in the 85th minute. The Vikings held a 12-7 shots advantage, but UNC keeper Natalie D'Adamio made five saves for the shutout.
PSU was the beneficiary of an own goal Sunday. UND took the early 1-0 lead in the 21st minute, but the Vikings' Kayla Henningsen evened the score two minutes later.
Early in the second half a UND defender attempted to kick a Portland State crossing pass out of harm's way, but she instead sent it into her own net. PSU put away the insurance goal in the 79th minute.
Sacramento State opened its league schedule Friday with a 1-0 victory at North Dakota. The Hornets opened the scoring in the 14th minute and did not score in the second half despite holding a 16-2 advantage in shots over the final 45 minutes.
Northern Colorado mostly bottled up Sac State's offense Sunday. The Bears, who scored in the 68th and 81st minutes, allowed the Hornets just eight shots, only three of which were on goal.
On tap: All 10 teams will be in action Friday. In addition to Montana's match at Portland State, Eastern Washington will be at Sacramento State, Southern Utah will be at Idaho State, Northern Arizona will be at Weber State and North Dakota will be at Northern Colorado.
On Sunday, Eastern will play at PSU, SUU will play at WSU and NAU will play at ISU.
Defensive evolution: Eleven matches into last season Montana had scored 17 goals. Through 11 matches this season Montana has scored just 10 and ranks in the bottom half of the Big Sky Conference in scoring. Yet the Grizzlies have a better winning percentage this season.
The reason? Last year at this point Montana's opponents had already scored 26 goals. This season, only a dozen. The Grizzlies already have four shutouts this season, compared to just two all of last season.
"(Defense) has always been a focus, but with the way we play defense and our principles, it takes time to learn and get used to," second-year coach Mark Plakorus said.
"The thing we're doing better than last year is our defensive work rate, our focus defensively and our players having a better understanding of what's expected of them and how we want them to work together within a game.
"It's really helped us limit opportunities for other teams."
Those limited opportunities were particularly noticeable during Montana's recently completed three-match homestand. Though the Grizzlies came away with just one win in the three matches, they outshot New Mexico State, Idaho State and Weber State 64-22 and put 25 shots on goal to its three opponents' five.
That Montana turned those opportunities into just two goals in 310 minutes isn't causing Plakorus to lose any sleep, because he knows the looks have not dropped off from last season.
"We're still creating the same chances we created last year, we're just not getting as many goals," he said.
"Defending is always easier than attacking. When you're defending you're not dealing with the problem of the ball. It's about positioning, it's about heart, it's about work rate and reading what's going to happen.
"You have those same things in attacking, but you also have the ball to deal with. Scoring is not as easy as people think it is."
Road tripping: That Montana opened the season with four straight weekends on the road was good training for the team's league schedule. The Grizzlies have four more weekends of league matches, and three of those will be on the road, though one is a single-match trip to Eastern Washington.
"I'm confident in this team, whether we're playing at home or on the road, because I know they will be prepared and they are going to compete," Plakorus said.
"I like the team we're becoming, in terms of our relationships and how we are with each other and how we work with one another. Whether that's enough to make the ball go our way and come out of this weekend with a win or two, we can't control that."
More on Portland State: The Vikings tied for the regular-season title in 2011 with Northern Colorado, with both teams finishing at 4-1-2 in league play. PSU was picked first in the preseason coaches' poll despite returning just five starters from that team.
Portland State got off to a slow start this season, opening 0-4, but is 3-2-1 since breaking into the win column earlier this month with a 2-1 double-overtime victory over Boise State.
Series history: Portland State holds a 9-8-2 series advantage over Montana in a rivalry that has been played every year since 1995. The Grizzlies have won just once against the Vikings since the 2001 season.
In last year's meeting Montana had a 2-0 lead at South Campus Stadium at the half on goals by Erin Craig and Ashley Robertson, but Megan Martin scored twice within the span of 90 seconds early in the second half to give PSU the road draw and keep the Grizzlies winless against the Vikings in Missoula since 2001.
Martin, a senior on this year's Portland State team, was the 2011 Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP.
More on Sacramento State: The Hornets were 2-1-2 through five league matches a year ago, then lost back-to-back contests to just miss out on the Big Sky tournament. Six starters are back from that team.
Sac State's three wins this season have come against Nevada, 2-1, and UC Santa Cruz, 4-0, both at home, and last Friday at North Dakota.
The Hornets joined Montana at UNLV's tournament earlier this month, and both teams faced the host Running Rebels and Indiana State. The Grizzlies beat ISU, 1-0, and lost to UNLV, 3-1. Sac State lost to UNLV, 2-0, and played to a scoreless draw with the Sycamores.
Series history: Montana is 10-5-4 against Sacramento State but has just one win since the 2003 season. That's not to say the Hornets have been dominating. Four of the last seven meetings have ended up in ties.
Last season on a soggy field in Missoula, Victoria Ramirez put the Hornets ahead 1-0 in the 12th minute, and it held up as the game-winner. Ramirez, who led the team last season with six goals, is back as a senior in 2012.
Montana notes: The Grizzlies are 4-1-2 in their last seven matches, the team's best seven-match stretch since going 5-2-0 over a period of seven games in 2008. ... Montana leads the Big Sky Conference in shots (14.64/g). Sac State (14.50/g) is second, Portland State (13.60/g) ranks fourth. ...Montana's line of defenders in front of goalkeeper Kristen Hoon is getting the job done. The Grizzlies lead the Big Sky with a 1.03 goals against average and five shutouts, but they rank ninth out of 10 teams in the number of saves their keepers are having to make (3.18/g). When that's the case, ranking ninth out of 10 teams is a positive. ... Montana leads the Big Sky Conference in corner kicks with 60 (5.45/g). ... Erin Craig leads the league in shots (3.36/g), while Hoon leads with five shutouts and is tied for first with a 1.04 goals against average.
Upcoming: Depending on how the regular season shakes out, Montana's final home matches of the season could be on the horizon. The Grizzlies will host Northern Colorado on Friday, Oct. 5, at 3 p.m. and North Dakota on Sunday, Oct. 7, at 11 a.m. at South Campus Stadium.
Montana will have a pair of road-trip weekends (at Eastern Washington and at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona) to conclude league play, then ends its regular season with a standalone match at Utah Valley on Friday, Oct. 26, leading up to the Big Sky Conference tournament.
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