Grizzlies Pioneer New Paths
by Rick Stern
As the nineties draw to a close, the pioneering spirit is alive and well on the fields and ice of Missoula. Grizzly bears may have been crowded out of the valley by people, but, in the name of the great bear, UM sports teams continue to blaze new trails in the world of intercollegiate sports, Western-style.
The work--and play--of Montana teams in four sports is especially notable when considering the role of the Grizzlies in altering the face of collegiate athletics in the Intermountain West. Fairly new squads in the games of soccer, ice hockey and lacrosse have quickly gained attention--not only from the Missoula community but from competitors as well. And the football Grizzlies, long a fixture in Missoula, are in the midst of a decade of success.
Adieu, Ah Yat: Starting quarterback Brian Ah Yat played his final Griz game in 1998.
Any discussion of UM athletics is bound to focus on football in light of the six incredible years the Griz have strung together, including the 1998 campaign. The Grizzlies capped their regular season with a gritty, muddy 28-21 victory over Montana State in quarterback Brian Ah Yat's final home game. The victory marked the thirteenth consecutive time that the Griz downed the Bobcats, who would have won the Big Sky Conference title and earned a playoff berth had they beaten Montana.
In a respectable season the Griz finished 8-4, losing in the first round of the Division I-AA playoffs to the Western Illinois Leathernecks. The 52-9 loss was the worst shellacking Montana has suffered since 1985, when the Division I-A University of Minnesota team pummeled them 62-17. The loss to the Leathernecks also saw the departure of Ah Yat, playing his last Griz game. The starting quarterback's three-year career racked up some incredible statistics, and Ah Yat, named Big Sky Offensive Most Valuable Player for the second time, concluded his college career as a pioneer of sorts, joining wide receiver Raul Pacheco as the first Grizzlies ever to play in the Hula Bowl--January's collegiate all-star game in their native Hawaii.
"I had a great time playing here," Ah Yat says. "I got the chance to play with a lot of great guys while I was here, and I enjoyed every minute of it."
Except, maybe, for the loss to the Leathernecks. "As a senior, you definitely don't want to go out like that," Ah Yat says. "Western Illinois is a good team, and they just took it to us."
That defeat in the first round of the playoffs for the second season in a row was undoubtedly a disappointment for Montana fans spoiled by the Griz's National Championship in 1995 and their outstanding 1996 season in Ah Yat's debut year as a starter. Nevertheless, after losing three of their first six contests, the Grizzlies displayed a heroic effort simply to make the playoffs, winning all five final games in order to take home the Big Sky Conference championship and earn their sixth straight playoff berth.
A young squad, the Montana women's lacrosse team already finds itself tops in the region after just two years of competition. The region, however, boasts only one team.
For a young team, Montana showed itself capable of upholding the strong Grizzly athletic tradition. Beginning its 1998 season with a roster including women who had never witnessed an actual lacrosse game, Montana finished the year by winning its division in the Pacific Northwest Lacrosse Association's year-end tournament.
Montana's ladies of lacrosse had to travel to the coast last year for all of their games. After four tournaments in coastal Oregon and Washington, the team craves competition somewhat closer to home. The women may realize that dream, hoping to host a tournament in Missoula during late spring semester. Having made connections and friends with squads from other schools during their forays into tournaments, Montana has received commitments from several squads willing to travel to Missoula for a tournament.
As a team competing at the "club" level, the women's lacrosse team has very little support from the University and is responsible for its own funding and scheduling. According to player/coach Emily Leary, a graduate student in history, the team hopes to travel to Davis, California, for a tournament and probably will return to Washington and Oregon for tournaments during the spring.
The women's success has inspired a group of men to start its own lacrosse team. Practicing throughout the fall, the group is searching for tournaments to participate in during spring semester.
If the history of Montana's other athletics teams, both young and established, is any indication, the men's lacrosse team should have a pretty good chance of success.
In its first season in the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Hockey Association, Montana's ice hockey squad has established quite a reputation. While compiling a 3-3 record in their first six games, the Fighting Grizzlies have become known for their ability to rack up penalty minutes.
"We should be 6-0 right now," says team President Justin Clausen, a sophomore in criminology. "When we're not shorthanded, we're the best team out there, but right now we're racking up too many penalties and spending too much time in the penalty box."
Clausen attributes that to the team's style of play. "We want to play a physical game because that's what the crowd likes to see," he says. "We also have some heavy hitters."
But don't think the Grizzlies are simply bruisers. Clausen says that he and Eric Penn, the team's coach and a graduate student who hopes to earn a master's degree in wildlife biology or biology education, have seen glimmers of greatness in the play of their first-year squad. Clausen has been particularly impressed with Montana's goaltending and with the versatility and overall skill level of the players on the young Grizzly team. Clausen hopes his Montana squad has a chance to prove its mettle in upcoming contests, including games against Weber State.
"Weber State is the number-one team in the nation at this level," he says. The Grizzlies and Wildcats play in the American Collegiate Hockey Association's Division II, which is several notches below the level played by eastern powerhouses such as two other UMs: Michigan and Maine.
"If we can pull out a win against Weber, that will say a lot for our program," Clausen says. The Grizzlies faced the Wildcats twice this February, just two of the five games scheduled for Montana's spring portion of the season. Montana also hosted Utah State in February. (Scores were unavailable at press time.) Montana plays all of its home games in the Glacier Ice Rink at the Western Montana Fairgrounds--a rather rinky-dink rink compared to others around the conference.
Should the Grizzlies finish as high as fourth in the seven-team league, they'll earn an invitation to the conference tournament February 25-27 in Ogden, Utah. Montana is currently in third place, but if Clausen's assessment isn't overly optimistic, the Griz could find themselves on top of the hockey heap in the Intermountain West in a very short period of time.
Midfielder Michelle Badilla-Gesek outruns a Cal State Northridge opponent in an October match.
Soccer coach Betsy Duerksen marked her 100th victory in 1998.
In its fifth year, the Montana soccer team--a women's team that chooses not to bear the Lady Griz name--has already established itself as a regional power. The team went 5-0 to capture the Big Sky Conference Championship during the league's inaugural season in 1997. After winning two more games to capture the Big Sky's first conference tournament that year, Montana came into 1998 as the Big Sky team to beat.
Weber State rose to the challenge, beating Montana 2-1 during the regular season October matchup in Missoula. Montana and Weber both finished 6-1 and shared the Big Sky regular-season championship, but Weber State's victory over Montana earned the Wildcats the right to host the conference tournament in early November.
After defeating Northern Arizona, 2-0, in the first round, Montana earned a rematch with Weber State for the conference crown. But the Wildcats benefited from the home-field advantage, beating the Griz 2-1 in double overtime, to earn bragging rights in the Big Sky.
Anyone who has followed these first two years of the Big Sky Conference, however, knows that Weber State owes much of its success to the Montana team and coach Betsy Duerksen, who paved the way for soccer in the conference. By establishing a team that was successful from the very beginning, Duerksen attracted notice for soccer in the region and helped to pull previously unaffiliated teams into a conference worthy of national attention. Rewarded this season with her 100th coaching victory, Duerksen watched Montana down sixteenth-ranked Brigham Young 4-1 in a September contest in Provo, Utah. Overall, Duerksen has piloted Montana to a 64-28-2 record during the school's five seasons of soccer history. Tapping into the Grizzly trail-blazing spirit, Duerksen and her team have honored a fine history and established a new tradition of excellence.
Executive director of Missoula Urban Demonstration Project, Rick Stern is a freelance writer.
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