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Juggernaut Griz soccer team looks to take next step under 5th-year coach Chris Citowicki

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Griz vs. Weber State Big Sky Conference championship soccer 17.JPG (copy)

Montana soccer head coach Chris Citowicki reacts as the final minutes wind down off the clock during the Big Sky Conference tournament title game Nov. 7 in Greeley, Colorado. Citowicki has led the Griz to two conference regular-season titles and three league tournament crowns in his first four seasons.

MISSOULA — Two regular-season Big Sky titles. Three conference tournament crowns. A trio of trips to the NCAA tournament. And a 78.6 winning percentage against league teams.

No, that’s not a small slice of Lady Griz basketball success under former coach Robin Selvig. Nor is it a piece of Griz football’s run under coach Bobby Hauck during his first stint at Montana.

Those stats belong to coach Chris Citowicki and the Griz soccer team. And they may be the best thing UM has going in the athletic arena. They’re certainly the most successful in recent years.

Citowicki has turned UM into a powerhouse in four short seasons during his first head coaching job at the NCAA Division I level. As he goes from building a program to now trying to sustain success, he’s turned to coach Travis DeCuire, who led Griz basketball to NCAA tournament berths in 2018 and 2019, to talk about being comfortable with and confident in team culture.

But it’s not just about sustaining success. Citowicki and his players aren’t afraid to put lofty expectations out there. They don’t want to settle for making it to the NCAA tournament. They want to win a first-round game, which Montana has done only once, way back in 2000.

“You’ve got to win in the NCAA tournament at some point, right,” he asked rhetorically. “I feel like we’re all getting tired of losing in that first round. It’s hard. It’s a very complicated step, but it’s something that we have to start shooting for. We can’t just continue being comfortable just doing this over and over again.”

Accomplishing that depends on a combination of coaches, players and luck, like avoiding injuries. The Griz lost key pieces from last year’s squad, but they have enough returning talent to be able to dream big. They bring back eight starters from a team that went 13-6-1, the program’s most wins since 2000.

One of those starters is defender McKenzie Kilpatrick, the lone fifth-year senior and the only player still on the roster not recruited by Citowicki. The family culture he’s built at UM was a major factor in Kilpatrick wanting to use her COVID year of eligibility to play another season after appearing in 69 games and making 44 starts over the previous four years.

“I love the program so much. I love the girls. I love just everything we stand for,” she said. “COVID kind of took a lot away from people and that one year was kind of tough. Coming back last year, I just had the time of my life. I was like, ‘You know, I just want to come back and play one more season and just step into a different role than I’ve been in.’”

Citowicki believes there is still more out there for Kilpatrick to achieve. She’s one of two team captains along with Allie Larsen, a senior defender who has started all 50 games over the past three years, earning second-team All-Big Sky honors once and honorable mention status twice.

Larsen was part of Citowicki’s first recruiting class after he was hired in May 2018. She’s enjoyed the welcoming atmosphere within the team and how they take pride in hard work on and off the field, like working with youth soccer players in the community. When they’re all on the same page, special things can happen.

“I think that’s something that’s cool about our team is last year we were super professional,” she said. “Chris would come in, he’d be like, ‘Alright, I need this done.’ Everyone put their head down, worked, got it done. I’m hoping that will carry over into this year and we can just grind and get it done.”

Larsen has been impressed with the freshmen and transfers during fitness tests and practices. So too has redshirt sophomore Camellia Xu, the reigning Big Sky goalkeeper of the year and the holder of UM’s single-season record with 11 shutouts. She could potentially be even better after playing in a summer league and training with Canada’s U-20 women’s national team.

Citowicki has shown he can replace the Big Sky’s career shutout leader, Claire Howard, with Xu. He’s also demonstrated that the offensive attack keyed by Bozeman native Alexa Coyle could be filled by Taylor Stoeger. Now they must replace Stoeger. Perhaps one option is Kalispell Flathead grad Skyleigh Thompson, a sophomore who Citowicki noted is full of potential.

The Griz also hope for contributions from two transfers: Montana native Maysa Walters from New Mexico and Kathleen Aitchison from Nebraska. Walters, who grew up in Billings before moving to Colorado midway through her freshman year of high school, helped the Lobos make the NCAA tournament twice and win a game there once.

That’s exactly what the Griz are hoping they can do now: be more than just a tournament participant. They’ll embark on that quest with an ambitious non-conference schedule, starting with home games against Creighton on Aug. 18, Pittsburgh on Aug. 21 and Wyoming on Aug. 25.

“I think we have a lot to give this year,” Xu said. “We have a really strong group of freshmen and transfers. I think that despite all that we did last year, there’s a whole lot more that we can do this year. Just really excited to see where the team goes this year.”

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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