Game Recap

Montana soccer falls 3-0 to Washington State in first round of the NCAA Tournament

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There’s one question that haunts Chris Citowicki. He’s puzzled over it since the spring, when the Montana Grizzlies lost 1-0 to South Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, chasing the answer like Ahab chasing the whale.

How to outsmart — outwit, outhustle, outfight — the sheer reality of the talent gap between his Grizzlies and the teams they’re consistently matched up against in the first round of the NCAA Tournament?

That means teams like Washington State, which smoked the Griz 5-1 in the tournament in 2018 and 6-0 in the regular season in 2019 before popping up beside their name again during the selection show Monday.

There was nothing Citowicki could do about that.

The Cougars were one of the best teams in the country during the regular season, losing just twice while playing a Pac-12 schedule, giving up 11 goals in 19 games while also finishing fourth in the entire nation in shots per game.

There was nothing Citowicki could do about that either.

But this was soccer, where talent doesn’t always tell, where strategy and effort and luck can wrench the scales from brutally unbalanced back to something approaching even over the course of 90 minutes.

And Citowicki, and his team, could do something about that.

The game plan wasn’t complicated. Facing a team the caliber of Washington State, Montana would have to sit back with five defenders, harry and frustrate the Cougars and, most importantly, hold them scoreless until the Griz could break forward and score one of the very few chances they were likely to get.

“The whole point of this one, just like last year, was to keep it close,” Citowicki said. “If it’s 1-0 in the last 10 minutes, we’ll find something. We’ll make it happen. … It was always going to be a real tough game. As soon as we saw the draw, it was like, dagnabbit. But then you watch them play and it’s, alright, we have a chance if we set up a certain way, keep it close and then hit them on the counter a few times.”

They had done it before, winning 1-0 against Long Beach State in September despite being out-shot 26-4 by a team that was receiving top 25 votes at the time.

Winning a game despite having 20 fewer shots than your opponent is difficult. What’s even more difficult is winning a game that way when you haven’t played that way for most of the season. Immediately after the Long Beach State game, Montana went into Big Sky Conference play, where it had a talent advantage. So, for the better part of two months, the Grizzlies opened up. They pushed their wingbacks forward. They dominated possession and had the third-most shots in the conference.

That’s the best chance Montana has to win the conference. But to have any chance at all of winning an NCAA Tournament game, the only step left after winning three Big Sky tournament championships in four seasons under Citowicki, they have to play the complete opposite way.

It’s the poisoned paradox hidden in the program’s recent success.

So Citowicki spent the week since Washington State’s name popped up next to Montana’s agonizing over the game plan, ruing the day of practice reduced to a walkthrough by the snow that swept through Missoula.

In the end, the Grizzlies very nearly pulled off the underdog role to perfection in their 3-0 loss at Washington State’s field in Pullman on Saturday.

Ali Monroe’s shot in the 21st minute, Montana’s first shot of the game, very nearly gave the Griz a 1-0 lead. Instead, it cannoned off the top right corner of the goal frame and out.

“I knew where the goal was at, and I just put my head down and was hoping for the best,” Monroe said. “I hit it well, with how quickly I got it off my foot. I was hoping it was going to get under the bar.”

Montana very nearly got to halftime with the score still tied at 0-0. Instead, 12 minutes after Monroe’s chance, Marin Whieldon’s back-post header looped over Camellia Xu and into the back of the net, paying off the Cougars’ early threat on set pieces.

And the Grizzlies very nearly kept the score at 1-0 all the way until the end, keeping pressure on the favorites and keeping themselves one moment away from tying the game and potentially sending it to the brutal, stressful randomness of a penalty shootout.

Instead, eight minutes after Molly Massman just barely let the ball run too far on a golden opportunity at the back post — the one moment the Griz had been waiting for — Caitlin Rogers took down Sydney Stuber in the box. Sydney Pulver sent Xu the wrong way from the penalty spot to make it 2-0 in the 79th minute, and Grayson St. Lynch added a third for the Cougars shortly after.

“I told them before the (Big Sky) semifinal, with an f-bomb thrown in there, you don’t lose this game,” Citowicki said. “Your seniors don’t ever go out in the semifinal of a Big Sky playoff. And they don’t go out in the championship of a Big Sky playoff. If they’re going to end their careers, they’re going to end their careers at the NCAA Tournament at somebody else’s field in front of thousands of people.”

As the rain drizzled down on the field shortly after the final whistle, Citowicki confronted the harsh reality his program had, once again, run into.

His tactical changes had worked, more or less, including switching Montana’s all-conference right wingback Taylor Hansen to the left to match up with Washington State’s leading scorer, right winger Elyse Bennett.

In the final game of her record-setting Montana career, Hansen shut down Bennett badly enough that the Cougars moved their star to the other side of the field in the second half, allowing Hansen to shadow her and revert back to her natural position at right wingback.

The players brought the hustle and commitment the game plan demanded, only being beaten on a set piece after foiling Washington State in open play for most of the first half.

They’d even created chances, the one or two good looks at a shot that were all they were prepared to get and all they thought they needed.

That’s life as a small-conference team. Do everything right, all that you can, and still lose by a comfortable margin. It will be difficult for Montana to transcend that, to get to a place where the Grizzlies don’t have to defend and counter their way to an upset against teams like Washington State. It might even be impossible. But even in the rain and the pain, Citowicki was scheming about that far-off future.

“With these horses that they have up front, I knew we needed five in the back just to make sure they couldn’t get around us,” Citowicki said. “We stopped it quite well and then looked to hit on the counter. But yeah, if you give me six years, I’ll see what I can do. I need a little bit more time recruiting.”

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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