MISSOULA — The Montana women's soccer team is heading back to the NCAA tournament for the second time in the past three seasons.
The Griz (9-1) clinched the Big Sky's automatic bid when the conference tournament championship game was declared a no-contest due to COVID-19 protocols within Northern Arizona's program. The Griz and Lumberjacks were slated to play in the title game at 3:30 p.m. MT Saturday in Ogden, Utah.
The Big Sky's Olympic Sports Committee declared the Griz the champ and gave them the league's berth into the NCAA tournament, which begins April 27 in North Carolina. The NCAA bracket will be revealed on Monday.
“We regret that these two deserving teams, both of which won their divisions in impressive fashion during our regular season, will not have the opportunity to determine our champion on the pitch,” Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill said.
“We feel for Northern Arizona’s student-athletes and coaches who worked so hard to reach this moment and hope that everyone involved remains safe and healthy.
“At the same time, we will look forward to cheering on Montana as the Griz proudly represent our conference in the national tournament.”
Montana, champions of the Northwest Division, got to the title tilt by scoring a 2-1 overtime win against Northern Colorado in the semifinals on Thursday. NAU (7-2-1), champions of the Southeast Division, defeated Idaho 1-0 in the first semifinal, getting its goal on a penalty kick in the first half.
Montana senior forward Taylor Stoeger was named the Big Sky women's soccer tournament MVP. She scored both goals in the Grizzlies' semifinal OT win. Also making the all-tourney team are senior goalie Claire Howard, senior forward and Bozeman native Alexa Coyle, and senior defender Taylor Hansen.
"Thoughts are with the the NAU student-athletes and staff," UM head coach Chris Citowicki wrote on Twitter. "Not the way anyone would want a playoff to end."
In three seasons under Citowicki, Montana won the Big Sky tournament title in 2018 and the regular-season crown in 2019. The Griz also won their division this spring, a newly introduced aspect to the conference.
This would have been UM's 10th appearance in the title match since the league began sponsoring the sport in 1997. The Griz won the tournament in 1997, 1999, 2000, 2011 and 2018.
The Montana women's tennis team jumped out to a 3-0 lead but lost the final four matches against Idaho to suffer a crushing 4-3 defeat on Friday at the PEAK Racquet Club in Missoula, falling to 6-5 overall and 1-2 in the Big Sky.
The Griz opened by winning the doubles points as Lauren Dunlap and Alex Walker won 6-3 on court two, Maria Goheen and Ivayla Mitkova won 6-3 on court three, and Julia Ronney and Olivia Oosterbaan won 7-5 on court three. UM then won the first two singles matches as Goheen won 6-3, 6-2 on court four and Ronney won 6-3, 6-4 on court one.
In need of just one win to wrap up the match, UM lost four in a row. Oosterbaan lost 6-4, 6-4 on court two, Dunlap fell 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 on court three, Mitkova dropped a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 match on court five and Walker fell 0-6, 7-6, 6-4 on court six.
The Montana softball team ended its six-game losing skid with a sweep of Carroll College and will now look to snap its slide in Big Sky competition.
The Griz (11-24, 3-6 Big Sky) will host Southern Utah (13-20, 5-1) with a doubleheader starting at 2 p.m. Saturday and a single game at noon Sunday.
It's the third-to-last conference series for UM, which won its first three league games against Portland State but then dropped its past six to Sacramento State and Northern Colorado. The Griz are fifth out of seven teams in the league standings; the top six compete in the Big Sky tournament next month.
Southern Utah, picked sixth in the preseason coaches poll, leads the Big Sky with 5.8 runs per game and has a league-high 44 home runs, including a conference-best 11 homers from Minnesota transfer Josey White. The Thunderbirds have won eight of their past 13 games after starting 5-15.
“I have a lot of respect for what they are doing,” UM coach Melanie Meuchel said. “They take a lot of pride in the offensive side of their game.
“They will swing it aggressively. We’ll pitch to that and work to that and defend to it. Then we’ll have our own at-bats.”
The Montana women's golf team will be competing at the Big Sky Conference championship from Monday through Wednesday in Molalla, Oregon.
All teams will play 18 holes each day at Arrowhead Golf Club, which is built into an old-growth forest, has rolling hills and is near the Molalla River and Wrights Creek.
“The biggest difference between what we just played and what we’re going to is tee shots have to be in play,” UM coach Kris Nord said. “You have to see to your specific target and hit to it.
“If you’re off line at all, you’re going to have to take your medicine and play for a miraculous par or a good bogey. We just need to take the mindset of playing real positive golf. If you have a bump in the road, let it go and go to the next hole.”
Competing for UM are seniors Teigan Avery and Faith D’Ortenzio, junior Kylie Esh, sophomore Jessica Ponce and freshman Meredith Boos. This is the fourth championship appearance for Avery, who finished as high as 20th in 2018, the third for D'Ortenzio and the second for Esh, who placed 24th in 2018.
The Griz haven't finished higher than seventh at the championship since 2014-15. They're ranked ninth out of 11 Big Sky teams and No. 213 in the country, per Golfstat.
“We were in this position in tennis 20 years ago, where we just wanted to be in contention,” Nord said. “We have to get ourselves in contention more consistently, which would be a top three or four finish. Then take it to the next step. That’s the progression.
“Our goal is to shoot a 290. That’s a high bar, but if you don’t have that high goal, we shouldn’t be getting on the airplane on Saturday. We have a huge upside. It’s just whether we can get everybody clicking all three days. The challenge is the entire conference is better.”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.