(Editor's note: University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA — Raised in Billings, Maysa Walters and her family knew she would have to leave her home state if she truly wanted to put everything into chasing her soccer dreams.
After spending her freshman year at Laurel High School, she spent most of her high school years living with host families in the Denver area, the sacrifice required so she could play first for Colorado Storm, later Real Colorado.
That led to a spot at New Mexico, where she was a three-year starter for Lobos teams that won two Mountain West championships and twice advanced to the NCAA tournament.
The 5-foot-5 midfielder will graduate in May with a degree in population health and still has two years of eligibility remaining, which she’ll use with an eye on the next big thing: playing professionally.
It just so happens that her home-state program is checking all her boxes. Montana is winning championships and sending players to the next level at a rate that is getting people’s attention.
“Montana met everything I was looking for when I went to the transfer portal,” said Walters, who had three goals and seven assists in three years at New Mexico.
She wants to pursue a graduate degree in public health, then she wants to follow in the footsteps of Alexa Coyle, Rita Lang, Caitlin Rogers and Mimi Eiden.
“One of my biggest aspirations is to play overseas when I’m done, and Montana is sending more kids over than any Power 5 right now. It’s incredible,” said Walters.
It’s also a chance to close a circle, for Walters to play in the home state she left so many years ago, to play for the Grizzlies and the school she grew up cheering for.
“Coming back to Montana is a dream come true, getting to represent my state and everything I’ve put toward the sport,” she said. “A lot of my family hasn’t been able to see me play in a long time. It just goes to show the dedication I put toward it. I have a degree from New Mexico and two championships. Now, what’s next in my story? I think the future is only up.”
It was a future that was always going to involve soccer, scripted like the numbers she used to write directly onto the balls she’d juggle, new records set, later to be transferred permanently to a booklet.
She hopped around the country growing up, going to a camp in North Carolina, then California, then Minnesota, where she was coached by a guy whose name was as unforgettable as his personality.
It happened to be Chris Citowicki, then the coach at Division III St. Catherine in St. Paul, later at North Dakota, now entering his fifth year at Montana.
“Two coaches stood out to me that I distinctly remember, and he was one of them,” said Walters of the Minnesota camp. “Their coaching style, their charisma. You could tell they loved what they did. Chris’s energy to want to make players better was something I really valued. It’s so cool to say he coached me when I was 12 and now I get to play for him again.”
It wasn’t just the coach who stood out. “Here was this kid who everyone adored. Hard worker, good player. I was at a Division III school, so I wasn’t going to get a kid like that,” said Citowicki. “I think she’s really excited to be back here for the final two years. She’s coming back home to close the circle.”
It was a circle that was opened with a serendipitous meeting on an airplane, as Walters and her mom were flying to San Francisco for a tournament with Montana’s Rocky Mountain FC.
They got to visiting with the woman sitting next to them, which led to talk about soccer, which led to the discovery that they were sitting next to the mother of Tierna Davidson.
Davidson was committed to Stanford at the time and already a member of youth national teams, which left Walters wide-eyed and speechless. This girl was living Walters’ dream.
Davidson would go on to lead Stanford to the 2017 national championship, be the first pick in the 2019 NWSL College Draft and has played for the U.S. in both the World Cup and Olympics.
Before any of that that too place, Tierna Davidson’s mom changed Maysa Walters’ life.
“She said, if you want to keep pursuing soccer, come to San Francisco, come train with De Anza Force. You need to get exposed,” Walters recalled.
If moving to San Francisco was out of the question, the rest of the message was clear. Take a chance, move up, go where your dreams can shift from unreachable aspirations to realistic goals.
“From that conversation on, my parents and I said, okay, if this is something you want to do, if you want to be really good at it, we’re going to have to look at going outside of Montana,” said Walters.
It started by becoming a discovery player with Colorado Storm, a commuter who made her way to Denver two weekends a month.
It was a start, but it was a half measure. She wasn’t getting in the same critical training time as her teammates, and too much school back in Billings was being missed.
“We decided that if I wanted to do it badly enough, that if I wanted to keep pursuing soccer at the highest level, I needed to live down there,” said Walters.
She moved to Colorado midway through her freshman year of high school, and her soccer life took off.
When she switched to Real Colorado, she became teammates with Jaelin Howell, the NCAA Division I MAC Hermann Trophy winner the last two years at Florida State.
She became teammates with Sophia Smith, who led Stanford to the 2019 national championship and was the top overall pick in the 2020 NWSL College Draft.
She would occasionally train with Real Colorado alumna Mallory Pugh, who made her debut on the U.S. national team at the age of 17.
Forget San Francisco. Colorado was where it was at.
“I was training at the highest level I think I could aside from youth national team levels,” she said. “It was a dream come true, but there were a lot of sacrifices along the way. I’ve always had my family’s support. It was never any pressure, just full support. If this is something you want to do, we’re fully behind it. I’m just so fortunate.”
She chose New Mexico and made seven starts for the Lobos as a true freshman in 2019. She finished fifth on the team in scoring with three goals and three assists.
Her sophomore season was delayed until the spring of 2021. It would be worth the wait as New Mexico qualified for the NCAA tournament and advanced past the first round with a shootout victory over Navy.
Walters took New Mexico’s fourth penalty kick with the shootout tied 2-2. In the most pressure-filled moment of her career, she netted it and the Lobos would go on to win 4-2.
And that’s the last frontier for the Montana soccer program, the thing that has yet to be conquered, at least since the Grizzlies won their one and only NCAA tournament match back in 2000.
The Grizzlies are dominating the Big Sky Conference and sending players on to play professionally, but NCAA tournament success has eluded them.
That’s not to say Walters is the magical missing piece, but she will be the only player on Montana who has won in the NCAA tournament.
“She has the experience of being in that environment and winning in it,” said Citowicki. “She’s bringing that with her. We have players who have won (the Big Sky) and gone to the tournament. She’s won, gone to the tournament and won again.”
It’s a role she’ll embrace, not run away from.
“Past experiences are a huge thing. In those situations, I think I can stay calm, cool and collected. It’s okay, we got this. It’s another game we want to win,” she said. "I can use that to help the team. There is no reason we shouldn’t be winning the first round and moving on to the second.”
Walters joins a team that, like New Mexico, advanced to two NCAA tournaments in calendar year 2021. Citowicki will have a team in the fall that should challenge to make it three straight.
“I wanted more depth at (attacking midfielder), more competition,” said Citowicki. “That’s exactly what she’s adding. She’s very good at checking back, getting the ball between the lines and creating things. It will squeeze the players we already have in that position. It will be a very healthy competition.”
Like so many recent players before her, Walters will train and compete for championships with Montana, be all in on the present, with an eye on what it can lead to down the road.
“She has that Taylor Hansen, Alexa Coyle mindset. She was drawn to the program because players leave here to play professionally,” said Citowicki. “She’s coming in to continue developing. She’s fully committed to this program and the process we have that will help her make it to the next level, because that’s where she wants to go. Maysa is not done.”
Because even though her return to Montana closes one circle, another is always waiting to be started anew.