Women’s soccer: Montana faces Washington State in NCAA tourney’s 1st round

Montana drew a familiar opponent when the bracket for the 2018 NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Championship was announced on Monday afternoon.

The Grizzlies (7-8-6), the automatic qualifier out of the Big Sky Conference, will play Washington State (12-5-1), an at-large selection out of the Pac-12, on Friday at 8 p.m. (MT) in Pullman.

The teams have played each of the last five seasons, including September, when the Cougars, then ranked 16th nationally and on their way to a 10-0-0 start, defeated the Grizzlies 3-1 in Pullman.

The winner will advance to face either Central Connecticut State (16-1-2) or unbeaten Georgetown (17-0-3), the region’s No. 1 seed, on Friday, Nov. 16.

“I’m very excited about the draw,” said first-year coach Chris Citowicki. “I think it’s a good one for us. They were clearly a better team (when we played them in September), but that was early in the season for us.

“Now, after finding our identity as a team and who we are as a program and beating everybody in playoffs and not getting scored on and having all this energy, it’s a lot of momentum for us to take into the game. I think it will be a great game.”

Montana is making its fourth NCAA tournament appearance, its first since 2011, when the Grizzlies were sent to Stanford to face that year’s top overall seed. The Cardinal, who defeated Montana 3-0, would go on to win the national championship.

Friday will be a repeat matchup of what is the top moment in Griz soccer history, when Shannon Forslund scored in the 67th minute and Natalie Hiller made eight saves to lead Montana to a 1-0 victory over Washington State in Pullman in the first round of the 2000 NCAA tournament.

Washington State has advanced to the NCAA tournament nine of the last 11 years. The Cougars won at Central Florida in the first round last November and got by Tennessee in penalty kicks in Gainesville, Fla., before falling 1-0 in double overtime to Florida in the round of 16.

Montana might be the 64-team tournament’s most unlikely entry, considering the Grizzlies won just once in their first 11 matches of the season.

But that was all forgotten last week in a dominating performance in Ogden, Utah, when Montana won three matches in five days, all over higher seeds, all by shutout, to win the Big Sky tournament.

The No. 5 Grizzlies defeated No. 4 Northern Arizona 1-0 in the quarterfinals, No. 1 Weber State 2-0 in the semifinals and No. 3 Northern Colorado 1-0 in Sunday’s championship match.

Janessa Fowler was named tournament MVP, while Taryn Miller, Alexa Coyle, Taylor Hansen and Claire Howard were all voted to the all-tournament team.

“It’s still absolutely amazing. I still haven’t comprehended it. I still can’t believe how it all fell into place at the right time,” said Citowicki. “I’ve been saying it and I believed it, but I still can’t believe it happened. It’s incredible.”

Washington State opened the season 10-0-0, with just five goals allowed, and reached No. 7 in the national poll, but the Cougars dropped their next five to fall out of the top 25.

They were unbeaten in their last three to close the season, all three coming at WSU’s Lower Soccer Field, where Washington State was 9-1-1 this season.

The Cougars defeated California 4-2, tied No. 1 Stanford 1-1 and took care of Washington 3-1 on Friday.

Washington State was one of only two teams — Santa Clara was the other — to play the undefeated Cardinal (17-0-2), the tournament’s top overall seed and owner of a 41-match unbeaten streak, to a draw this season.

When Montana and Washington State met in September, Makamae Gomera-Stevens scored twice in the first half to spark the Cougars to a 2-0 halftime lead.

Coyle scored in the 63rd minute to bring Montana within a goal, but Maegan O’Neill answered less than eight minutes later with an insurance goal for Washington State, which had a 20-7 advantage in shots.