Montana soccer squad sweeps weekly Big Sky Conference awards

The Griz soccer team turned an unbeaten finish at the Montana Invitational over the weekend into a pair of Big Sky Conference Player of the Week awards on Tuesday.

Sophomore goalkeeper Claire Howard posted a pair of shutouts, as Montana defeated Vermont on Friday, 1-0, and played to a scoreless draw against North Dakota on Sunday, to collect Defensive Player of the Week honors.

It marks the second time that Howard, who was voted honorable mention All-Big Sky last fall as a redshirt freshman, has received the weekly award.

Hallie Widner was named Offensive Player of the Week after scoring the game-winner against the Catamounts on Friday in the 90th minute. The fifth-year senior was named the league’s Offensive Player of the Week once as a freshman in 2014 and again as a sophomore in 2016.

Widner is a three-time All-Big Sky selection, being voted first team in 2014, second team in both 2016 and ’17.

First-year coach Chris Citowicki thought he knew what he was getting in Howard when he was hired in May. After all, she was in goal last fall when Montana defeated North Dakota 2-1 at South Campus Stadium, when Citowicki was on the UND coaching staff.

What he’s discovered since his arrival in Missoula is that Howard is even better than he initially believed.

“What you can’t see in video is her attitude and how hard she works and how much she loves the sport and loves her job,” Citowicki said. “The attitude piece is huge.”

Howard, who now has nine career shutouts, wasn’t tested often over the weekend. She faced 17 shots over the course of 200 minutes and made saves on all eight that were put on goal. Few of those put her to the test.

But the true measure of a high-level keeper isn’t always the saves — or the volume of them — she makes. It’s the saves she doesn’t need to make because of her vision of the field, her anticipation of what’s likely to take place and the way she communicates with the back line in front of her.

“I tell Claire all the time that I don’t want her making saves,” said Citowicki. “I want her organizing things so well that the other team doesn’t have a chance to cross a ball. It’s her job to communicate things to the defenders so they can shut it down.”

It’s the type of work, done early and often and vocally, that likely cost Howard last season, when she was voted honorable mention all-league, not first or second team.

She led the Big Sky in goals-against average (0.70) and tied for second with seven shutouts, but she was required to make fewer than three saves per match, which is a positive but doesn’t help bolster a resume when voters are conditioned to look for big numbers that jump off the page.

Instead Big Sky Goalkeeper of the Year honors last fall went to North Dakota’s Catherine Klein, who was forced to make more than eight saves per match. It’s possible Howard was overlooked for being … too good?

“How do you judge that?” asked Citowicki. “You can’t keep track of how many times she tells a defender to do the right thing. But if you know the game and have a chance to listen to her, she’s awesome.”

The same could be said of Widner, who gets the recognition for scoring the game-winning goal on Friday but not necessarily for the skill that was needed to pull it off. It was a goal-scorer’s goal of the highest order.

The setting was straightforward enough: Montana and Vermont were deadlocked at 0-0 entering the final minute of regulation.

A McKenzie Warren shot was saved and created a corner kick, which Kennedy Yost sent into the box. Taryn Miller got a head on it, Alexa Coyle a foot, and the ball ended up by Widner, with only the keeper between her and the goal, maybe eight yards away.

But it wasn’t that simple. Or that easy. The ball was bouncing and on its way up when it found Widner.

Facing that situation, in the chaos of the moment and with the clock under a minute, nine out of 10 players, maybe even more than that, would have mirrored the trajectory of the ball with their leg swing, hit the bottom side and sent it into the parking lot behind the goal, if not bouncing across South Avenue.

And everyone would have groaned at the opportunity missed.

Instead there was much jumping, much hugging and much celebrating, because Widner connected solidly and ripped it into the right side of the goal for the fourth game-winner of her career.

“The ball was between knee and hip height, and it was bouncing up, so it was a difficult finish. The technique needed is extremely difficult, but Hallie is a super-technical player, a smart player and a clean ball striker,” said Citowicki.

“To hit the ball as cleanly as she did, it was a spectacular finish. She would be my first choice every time in that moment.”

Montana (1-3-1) will close out its pre-Big Sky schedule with three road matches over the next two weekends. The Grizzlies will play at Wyoming (3-0-1) at 4 p.m. on Friday and at UNLV (4-1-1) on Sunday at 2 p.m. (MT).

Montana will travel to Pullman next week to face Washington State (4-0-0) on Friday, Sept. 14.