November 4, 2011

Soccer's historic season ends in semifinal shootout

GREELEY -- One of the most dramatic moments in sports--a penalty kick shootout-- proved also to be one of the most heartbreaking moments for the Northern Colorado soccer squad Friday night.

The Bears (8-7-5, 4-1-2 Big Sky) fell in excruciating fashion to Montana in the Big Sky Championship semifinals at Jackson Stadium, falling 3-2 in a shootout after ending regulation and two overtimes in a 1-1 tie.

"This one hurts a lot because we had such a great group of seniors," Northern Colorado coach Tim Barrera said. "We had a very good team and we had plenty of opportunities tonight, we just couldn't put the second one away."

Northern Colorado's season was ended abruptly when Montana's Lauren Costa calmly struck her penalty shot past the outstretched arms of Bears goalkeeper Kirstin Salminen for the game-winning penalty kick.

"We worked on penalties all week," Barrera said. "We went with the players who were having success in practice and didn't seem to rattle too much. For players like Erin [Daniel] and Tara [Rickenbach], who missed, I don't think it was nerves as much as just not hitting it well.

"I think Ariel [Cook] slipped a little bit and got under it. You expect those players to make penalty kicks, but it's a conference tournament and its slick out there and footing isn't great, but both teams have to deal with it."

Costa's goal gave Montana the 3-2 shootout victory, but if not for Salminen's heroics earlier in the shootout, the Bears' season would have ended a bit earlier. The senior from Lynden, Wash., refused to let her season end as she made two acrobatic saves to keep the Bears in it.

For the game, Salminen was fantastic, as usual. She allowed just one goal and made nine saves to keep the Bears in the tournament.

Her nine saves also made her just the third goalie in Northern Colorado history to record at least 300 career saves. She ends her Bear career with 308 saves and moves past Chrissy Marvin into second-place on the all-time list.

"I felt really good going into the shootout because of how good she is," Barrera said about Salminen. "She handled her box very nicely today and limited Montana to two corners.

"She's just been steady for us all season and fantastic. I think she only made one or two mistakes all season, so she's been great for us. She's been great for us the last couple years. We're going to miss her obviously."

Early on, Northern Colorado looked like it was heading towards a result similar to the first time it faced off against Montana, when the Bears clinched a share of the Big Sky regular season title with a 2-0 victory.

Sophomore Brittany Dunn got the Bears on the board Friday in the 24th minute with her third goal of the season. Dunn's goal came off a Tara Rickenbach through-ball that Dunn received from about 25 yards away.

Dunn utilized some nifty footwork to get past a Grizzly defender and take a shot from 18 yards that got past Montana goalkeeper Kristen Hoon.

The Bears went into the locker-room at halftime up 1-0 and just 45 minutes away from their second appearance in a Big Sky tournament championship.

The Grizzlies had other plans however, as Ashley Robertson found the equalizer in the 70th minute. Montana scored its first goal of the season against the Bears when Erin Craig set up Robertson with a cross into the box.

The two teams traded punches for the rest of regulation and two overtime periods until the score had to be settled in a shootout.

The Bears also continued a recent trend in Big Sky tournament play, as they became the fourth straight team to host the Big Sky Championship and not win the tournament.

The loss, however excruciating, does not take away from the historic success Northern Colorado experienced this season. The Bears earned their first regular season Big Sky co-championship and had a school-record five players named to the Big Sky All-Conference First Team. Salminen was named the Big Sky Goalie of the Year, while senior defender Aundreaha Martinez was named the conference's Defensive MVP.

Despite losing five senior starters next season, the Bears have reason for optimism as they bring back a solid core of young players that have already experienced Big Sky success.

"You have the blueprint for what you want to do," Barrera said. "You want to play good teams and you want to get at goal and score goals. This year, we went to overtime eight times in 20 games. Other games went down to the wire, so we're going to take those experiences forward. But right now, it hurts."

The championship match of the 2011 Big Sky Women's Soccer Championship is set to kickoff at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6, at Jackson Stadium. Montana and Weber State will battle for the right to go to the NCAA Tournament.