The Montana soccer team’s best start in a generation has been helped by a solid core of newcomers, including true freshmen Hallie Widner, who is the team’s leading scorer, and Allie Lucas.
Savannah Witt hasn’t started a game for the Grizzlies and she’s technically a sophomore, but she belongs in that group.
It’s hard to imagine UM’s 5-0 start in Big Sky Conference play without her.
“Savannah’s a big part of it,” said fourth-year coach Mark Plakorus. “She’s someone that brings a lot to the game in terms of athleticism.
“She’s pretty good with both feet, which is hard to deal with when you have someone running at you. She adds a big dimension.”
Witt’s two game-winning goals this season are what Plakorus envisioned when he signed her out of Billings West two years ago. But then the 5-foot-6 forward who wears No. 13 caught some tough luck in Colorado.
As a result of two concussions in the summer of 2012, Witt didn’t suit up for UM for two years.
Studies have shown a substantial risk of concussions for women soccer players: 50 percent of players will get one. It’s also said that they most likely happen during competition, and not in the manner you might expect.
The ball isn’t always the culprit.
“Everybody thinks it’s headers but most of the concussions in soccer are not because of the ball,” Plakorus said. “You hit somebody’s head, or you hit the (goal)post.
“In Savannah’s case she was falling down and another player’s knee got her in the head.”
Witt was playing for a select U-23 team attached to the Colorado Rapids.
“I’m not sure exactly what happened,” she said. “The ball was between me and their outside defender. I remember kind of getting up. We actually didn’t have any subs left. I should have gone down on my knee but I really didn’t even process that. I played the last two minutes (of the half).”
Witt was cleared to play in that summer’s Shodair Classic, an all-star game for the state’s top soccer talent. She played well – and was quoted in the local paper afterward – but was concussed again. The news was grim when she got to UM: She might never be cleared.
Love of the game has carried many a Montana athlete through the travails of rehabilitation to find the court or field. Witt’s case is unique for what she could not do during her recovery.
Last spring Plakorus saw her increased energy and asked if she’d been running. She denied it.
“Yes you are,” Plakorus responded. “Quit running. You’re not allowed to run yet.”
“That was the really the hardest thing to do for me, not to do anything at all,” she said. “But one doctor told me this was a silent injury. You can’t see it and you can’t always feel it, but it’s there. You can’t actually tell whether it’s better or worse.”
On Saturday, Witt ran and – this is a nice knack to have – found herself in front of the net with a deflected shot. She created some space and was ready to try another game-winner when she was taken down.
The ensuing penalty kick, converted by teammate Brooke Moody, sealed a 1-0 win over Idaho.
“She’s such a handful,” Plakorus said of Witt, who came off the bench for the 14th time Saturday (UM is 9-5-0). “Right away she was giving us opportunities and really putting them under a lot of pressure.”
The Grizzlies are back on the road this weekend, heading to Northern Arizona and Southern Utah – two high-elevation, high-caliber opponents that will test their resolve.
They keep passing these tests, just as they did in 2012 when they went 12-6-3 and tied for first in the Big Sky. That was also the last year Plakorus saw Witt play at such a high level.
“She did things that most players don’t at her age,” he said of the then-high school senior. “Like instead of just getting to the end line and crossing the ball, she recognized the times when she could cut in and go to the goal, and keep driving.
“I was thinking, ‘She knows how to play.’ ”
Now she also knows to savor her time.
“When they told me I might not be cleared, even though I didn’t think that could be true, I was trying to learn how to accept that,” Witt said. “I appreciate it even more now. There was a time this spring when I was kind of tired of practice, and getting up at 6 a.m. Then I thought, ‘This is that little girl’s dream. That dream I had when I was 6 years old, to play soccer every day of my life. ’
“That’s coming true now. Just to realizing what a blessing that is... What an opportunity.”