MISSOULA — The Montana soccer team, which tied for sixth last fall, was picked fifth in the 2014 Big Sky Conference preseason coaches’ poll, the league office announced Wednesday.
Portland State and Weber State, the teams that met in the Big Sky tournament championship match last November, were picked first and second, respectively. Each team received five first-place votes.
Northern Arizona, which claimed the other first-place vote, was tabbed third, Northern Colorado fourth.
Those four teams made up the field of last season’s postseason tournament. The tournament is expanding to six teams this season.
The Grizzlies, who closed last season with three wins in their final four matches, went 7-8-4 last fall and tied for sixth in the Big Sky with a 3-5-1 record.
Montana missed the Big Sky tournament in 2013 after making the tournament and advancing to the championship match in fourth-year coach Mark Plakorus’s first two seasons.
The Grizzlies defeated Weber State in a shootout in the 2011 championship match to advance to its first NCAA tournament since 2000.
In 2012, Montana, after claiming a share of its first Big Sky regular-season championship since 2000, fell to Idaho State in a title-match shootout.
Filling out the rest of the preseason coaches’ poll were Idaho State in sixth, Sacramento State in seventh, Southern Utah in eighth, Big Sky newcomer Idaho in ninth, Eastern Washington in 10th and North Dakota in 11th.
Idaho and Eastern Washington are both under first-year coaches this fall.
Should Montana, which went 0-4-0 last season with just a single goal scored against the top four teams in this year’s poll, hope to challenge for the Big Sky regular-season championship, the Grizzlies will need to overcome teams loaded with talent and returning starters.
Portland State returns 10 starters and 17 letterwinners from last year’s team that went unbeaten (9-0-2) against Big Sky opponents. The Vikings went 8-0-1 in the regular season, allowing just three goals in nine matches, then shut out Northern Colorado 2-0 in the tournament semifinals.
PSU played to a 0-0 draw with Weber State in the championship match and fell 3-0 in a shootout.
Back to anchor Portland State’s stout defense are Kayla Henningsen, the reigning Big Sky Defensive MVP, and Caitlin Plese, who was voted co-Goalkeeper of the Year last season.
Weber State returns nine starters, including 2013 Big Sky Offensive MVP Mackenzie Harrison and fellow first-team All-Big Sky selections Brecken Holbrook and Chansi Crompton.
Montana lost to Portland State 1-0 at Missoula last season and 2-0 to Weber State at Ogden. The Grizzlies fell to Northern Arizona at home by a 2-1 score and 4-0 at Northern Colorado.
Not counting newcomer Idaho, Montana went 3-1-1 last season against the teams selected below the Grizzlies in this year’s poll.
The Grizzlies will play this season’s favorites early in the conference schedule. Montana will host Weber State on Friday, Sept. 26, in the Big Sky opener for both teams and play at Portland State the following weekend.
In other Montana soccer news, freshman midfielder/forward Madison Adams of Lake Tapps, Wash., was named the Big Sky preseason Freshman of the Year by College Sports Madness.
Harrison, of Weber State, was named the Offensive Player of the Year, Plese, of Portland State, was named the Defensive Player of the Year, and Portland State’s Laura Schott was named the preseason Coach of the Year, an honor given to Plakorus last season.
Montana did not land any players on College Sports Madness’s 13-player preseason Big Sky first team. Griz senior defender Brooke Moody, who was voted second team All-Big Sky last season, made the 13-player second team. Moody is Montana’s only returning All-Big Sky selection.
On a final soccer note, the NSCAA Wednesday came out with its preseason top 25 poll. It was topped by defending national champion UCLA, Florida State, Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.
Of importance for Montana: Washington State was the top vote getter among teams ranked just outside the top 25. The Grizzlies and Cougars will meet at Pullman, Wash., on Sunday, Aug. 31, in Montana’s fourth match of the season.
— Montana Sports Information
2014 Big Sky Conference Preseason Coaches’ Poll
1. Portland State (5) … 93
2. Weber State (5) … 92
3. Northern Arizona (1) … 86
4. Northern Colorado … 69
5. Montana … 62
6. Idaho State … 52
7. Sacramento State … 51
8. Southern Utah … 32
9. Idaho … 29
10. Eastern Washington … 27
11. North Dakota … 12