GREELEY, Colo. — Montana women’s soccer coach Chris Citowicki hugged his assistant coaches and pumped both fists as the final few seconds were ticking off the clock on Sunday.
The celebration of a Big Sky tournament title was just beginning. The Griz players went streaming from the bench onto the field to join a celebratory crew. They received their all-tournament awards, put their championship sticker on the bracket and got their trophy, running over to celebrate with the fans who made the trip from Missoula.
“I almost blacked out for a second,” Citowicki said. “My head started spinning. It was pretty exciting. I just was so happy that we got this done.”
The tournament title was Montana’s second in seven months, this one giving the Griz their 13th win of the season, the most in school history since the 2000 team won 16. They were also the champions in the spring season, which was delayed from the fall of 2020 because of the pandemic.
In the spring, the Griz won the title and got a trip to the NCAA tournament because Northern Arizona pulled out of the championship game due to COVID. This time, the Griz felt like they earned their title.
Junior Jaden Griggs scored the lone goal, assisted by senior Zoe Transtrum in the 36th minute. Freshman Camellia Xu, the Big Sky goalkeeper of the year, staved off Weber State’s constant attack in the second half, saving all six shots on goal to card her 11th shutout of the season, a single-season program record.
Not only were the Griz playing their second season this year, but they had to replace players who were cornerstones of the program. Gone were goalkeeper Claire Howard, the Big Sky’s all-time shutouts leader, Bozeman native Alexa Coyle, who was a top-10 scorer in program history and is now playing professionally, and first-team All-Big Sky midfielder Avery Adams, among others.
The big question for Citowicki was how to replace not only the on-field production but the leadership that those players brought to the team.
“At the start of the year, we talked about whether or not this team was mature enough to get it done, mature in terms of leadership, and yet, this probably has been one of the most professional squads I’ve ever coached, even though it’s very young,” he said. “So, it was tough having a younger team on a back-to-back season, but yet, somehow it worked out.”
For those players to show their maturity, Citowicki and his staff had to step back and let the leaders of the young team emerge.
Xu and seniors Taylor Hansen, Caitlin Rogers and Taylor Stoeger were named first-team all-Big Sky. Sydney Haustein landed on the second team and Allie Larsen was an honorable mention. Hansen is just the fourth-ever Grizzly to be a three-time first-team selection.
The Griz also put six players on the all-tournament team. Xu was the tournament MVP, and she was joined by Hansen, Rogers, Larsen, Charley Boone and Taylor Stoeger.
“Out of Alexa’s shadow, out of Claire’s shadow step the leaders that we have right now,” Citowicki said. “They’ve been guided and mentored really well over time, and so it’s them stepping into the light and showing us that they are professionals in everything they do. They took the mantle and they just said, ‘You know what, we can lead this program, we can guide this program, you guys just give us direction, and we’ll take it home,’ and that’s what they’ve done.”
The championship was Montana’s fifth in Citowicki’s four seasons. They won the Big Sky tournament titles in 2018, spring 2021 and fall 2021, and won regular-season titles in 2019 and spring 2021, when the Big Sky was divided into two divisions.
“It means a lot just because it’s been an extremely stressful year for everybody,” he said. “Playing in the spring, following it up by playing in the fall, having an extremely difficult road travel schedule, it’s been hard for me just because I’ve been away from my family as much as I have been. It sucks for my wife to be alone with the kids all the time, and that’s a lot of stress on her.
“So, to get this done in such stressful circumstances, it means a ton. It’s probably one of my favorites.”
The NCAA selection show is 2:30 p.m. MT Monday on NCAA.com. First-round matches will be Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
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