Nine months ago, Montana was 15 minutes away from playing in its third Big Sky Conference tournament championship game in four seasons under coach Mark Plakorus before disaster struck.
Playing on its home turf at South Campus Stadium in a conference tournament for the first time in 15 years, Montana gave up two goals to Idaho State in four minutes that spoiled the Grizzlies' regular-season conference title and the final outing for a senior class that included three all-conference selections.
Instead of letting itself flounder in the memory of the stunning defeat, Montana stepped back on its home turf Wednesday as preparation began for its chase for its fourth conference title since Plakorus took the program's reigns five years ago.
"I think if anything it gave us even more momentum," senior captain Mackenzie Akins said, giving a twist to the company line. " I think all the returners have that sting still and I think that kind of drives us to work even harder so that it is never going to happen again."
The word out of the program, from the returning lettermen to a talented crop of freshmen, is that this is a brand new team. The statement is not just a matter of fact -- the Griz graduated three seniors and will be without two underclassmen due to injuries -- but also a means to deal with the season-ending loss.
Kailee Norman, a 2014 second-team All-Big Sky selection at goal keeper, said building a new team identity is imperative for the Griz if they want to jump up a spot from where they were predicted to finish the 2015 season.
Polls released Thursday afternoon have Montana finishing second to Northern Arizona, the team that turned three one-goal wins in four days in early November into a Big Sky tournament title.
"We need to be humble and remember that this is a new team," said Norman, who posted a conference-leading nine shutouts last season. "We’re going to have struggles as well as high points, so we just need to be ready for whatever comes at us."
The team has already absorbed a serious amount of bad news during the off season.
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An attack tasked with replacing the services of midfielders Tyler Adair and Chloe Torres and high-scoring defender Brooke Moody, was dealt further blows when Hallie Widner broke her leg in late July playing in the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships and Savannah Witt retired days before camp commenced.
The cumulative effect is the loss of 18 of Montana's 32 goals.
"That’s the thing that is going to take the most work is to get us to a level where we can threaten other teams and hold them on our heels and get some goals," Plakorus said Thursday morning.
Montana will look to Akins, the team's lone senior, to create more scoring. Plakorus said the 5-foot-6 mid is capable, but she'll need support.
"She can do a lot for us," he said of Akins, who registered four goals and four assists last season. "Then you also have Allie Lucas, who has a year of experience under her belt, and Carlee Bates, who is a junior for us now and we expect her to have a great year."
As Montana finished the 2014 conference slate undefeated, its attack was complemented by the Big Sky's stingiest defense. Second-team selection Tess Brenneman and honorable mention honorees Mary Gintz Chanelle Pederson return to fortify the unit and ease concerns over the growing pains the attack could face as it navigates a difficult non-conference schedule.
Montana will host Iowa, Creighton, Washington State and Wyoming in an attempt to prepare for the conference slate that begins Sept. 25 at North Dakota.
"We don’t care who we play or where we play them," Plakorus said, "we just want the toughest teams we can to put us in uncomfortable situations and make us play at a high level."