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Confident, experienced Montana soccer team ‘excited’ for opportunity in NCAA tourney



MISSOULA — It isn’t exactly how the team envisioned it would happen heading into the Big Sky soccer championships, but the Montana Grizzlies are in the NCAA women’s soccer tournament.

The Grizzlies advanced after Northern Arizona was forced to forfeit Saturday’s Big Sky Championship due to an undisclosed amount of positive COVID-19 cases within the Lumberjacks’ program.

Instead of a Big Sky title match between the 9-1 Grizzlies out of the northwest division and the 7-2-1 Lumberjacks out of the southwest, the Grizzlies were named the Big Sky tournament champs Friday night. The Grizzlies will take on South Carolina out of the SEC on Wednesday, April 28, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Wilson, North Carolina.

When the news hit Friday that the title game was in jeopardy, the Grizzlies were in a weird spot.

Head coach Chris Citowicki and senior forward Alexa Coyle — a Bozeman High graduate — said during a Monday press conference that the team had to battle through a holding pattern of sorts when the match was up in the air and things were unknown for some time that day.

“It was an interesting feeling just because obviously not playing in a championship game — something we were very excited about — was weird,” Coyle said. “But, of course we are so excited for the opportunity and really proud of the season we have had this year. We put in a lot of work. … Now we are ready and our eyes are focused on that game.”

Citowicki echoed Coyle, adding the team had to wait and see if it could even happen before the official announcement came around 7 p.m. Friday.

“(It was) weird,” Citowicki said. “(I’ve) never experienced anything like it. … One, I get told there are positive cases. We have to see if the game is going on; well that doesn’t do anything good for me so now I’m sitting around focused for three hours trying to figure out if I am prepping the team for film for a game tomorrow or am I prepping to tell them we are not playing at all. Ended up sitting in limbo and texting my wife and her texting me back saying ‘What’s happening?’ and me saying ‘I have no idea.’ It’s kind of frustrating, kind of annoying but here we are.”

Even though the Grizzlies didn’t end up winning the conference tournament the old-fashioned way, instead settling for a one-win Big Sky Tournament run with a 2-1 overtime win over defending champ Northern Colorado Thursday, Coyle and Citowicki agreed the team still deserved the berth, citing the run through the regular season that got the Grizzlies the top seed in the tourney.

There is no self doubt or impostor syndrome about advancing via forfeit, even if the team wanted to win the title on the field against the Lumberjacks instead.

“It’s been a wild ride,” Citowicki said. “The whole theme the whole time has been how you respond is what matters the most; not what’s going on, it’s how do you respond. … Just keep moving forward and try to make the most out of every situation. … For me it’s hard to win a title if you didn’t compete for it, but at the same time we went 9-1 on the year. We would have to wipe everything we did out beforehand to say that ‘No it doesn’t.’ We’ve worked very hard to get here and they deserve it.”

On-field match up

It is a simple idea of big versus small.

South Carolina went 10-4-0 playing a schedule that had games in the fall and spring. The Gamecocks most recently went 3-1 in four spring games against schools around them. They took wins over Charleston, Coastal Carolina and Elon, and lost to No. 14 Clemson, Saturday, April 10.

The Grizzlies played just in the spring.

The Gamecocks come in at No. 28 in the women’s soccer RPI, while Montana is No. 66.

Citowicki has had a brief chance to get a feel for what the Gamecocks bring to the matchup.

“They’ve done well,” Citowicki said. “They’ve played their entire competitive slate in the fall, that’s how they qualified for the tournament now. They played a bunch of games now in preparation for the NCAA tournament, they’ve done well. They’ve won 3-0 a bunch of times. We are going to do a thorough analysis and see what they got.”

Back in

The last time the Grizzlies made the NCAA championships they were knocked out of the first round with a 5-1 loss to Washington State in 2018.

This time around, with a more seasoned roster that has a few players who have been there before, Coyle thinks the extra time to get ready for this moment can help the Grizzlies’ upset chances.

“Having the fall to train actually turned out to be a really beneficial thing for this team because we were just able to continue to improve and develop,” Coyle said. “ … It’s making this even that more special and all of us are excited for the opportunity after that long wait.”

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