MISSOULA — As soon as the horn sounded, Montana goalkeeper Claire Howard immediately found herself in the embrace of teammate Allie Larsen.
Caitlin Rogers was next to hug Howard, and soon the entire Griz women's soccer team had rushed from the sidelines to embrace their captain.
Montana had just defeated Portland State 4-0 in its final home conference game of the season at South Campus Stadium. But the win was extra special for Howard and the Grizzlies.
The redshirt junior and Santa Rosa, California, native, became Montana's all-time shutouts leader in Sunday's victory. The clean sheet was Howard's 25th of her career, which broke Kailey Norman's mark of 24 which was set from 2013-2016.
"It's amazing but I wish I could have everybody's name with me on this because it's nothing I ever did alone," Howard said. "All my past and current teammates make my job easy day in and out and I'm so grateful that I was able to come to a program that just took such pride in defending.
"I'm lucky that I've gotten to wear the jersey for that many shutouts."
Howard was honored after the game in front of the crowd as her teammates cheered and bowed to her as she waved in thanks. The reaction from her teammates swarming her was one she won't soon forget, too.
"It's amazing," Howard said. "They've supported me through the highs and lows of it all and it's just awesome to be in such a family so it's pretty special. I'll remember today forever, honestly."
The Griz improved to 5-0-2 in conference play to maintain their lead atop the Big Sky standings. In those seven games, Howard has allowed only one goal, and has four straight shutouts to her credit. She has eight clean sheets this season.
"It means the world (to us). We are such a close team and we're all sisters," redshirt sophomore forward Rita Lang said. "We all kind of joke about being this like clan-cult thing so when one person makes a big save or tackle, that means something to every single person on the field. We're all super invested in one another and we all love each other so that meant just as much to us as it did to Claire and it was super big time."
Montana has a tendency to win close games but on Sunday the offense came alive. After a first half in which Montana had plenty of opportunities but no results to show for it, Lang scored off of an assist from freshman Jaden Griggs in the 54th minute. Lang used her left foot to sneak the ball past the keeper even as she was knocked to the ground. That effectively opened the floodgates as Montana scored three times in three minutes.
Junior Taylor Stoeger scored her first career goal in the 56th minute to make it 2-0. Then Lang scored for the second time after Rogers put the ball into the box from about midfield in the 57th minute. A Portland State defender attempted to clear it but Lang was there to ricochet the ball off her shoulder and toward the right side of the goal where the keeper was unable to get there in time.
"Ending the first half, we all kind of knew that we had the momentum going forward," Lang said. "Our main thing that we said in the locker room was we needed to keep it going and set the tempo and keep rolling with our momentum. This is our last home game and we wanted to make a statement.
"(On the second goal) in my head I wanted to frame the goal and be ready for anything that comes my way. I'm not the tallest on the team so I was ready for what was going to happen. At the end of the day you just have to do what you have to do to get the ball in the back of the net so that's what I did."
Montana's final goal came on a set play after a penalty in the 78th minute. Junior Taylor Hansen was set to take the kick, but instead Larsen tapped the ball to junior Alexa Coyle who then turned and fired a rocket toward the goal. Portland State's keeper couldn't control the ball and sophomore Sami Siems was there to tap the ball in to give UM the 4-0 lead.
This comes after Friday's contest against Sac State where Montana again had multiple chances to score but instead drew 0-0.
"The ball went in the goal, that's what finally happened," Montana coach Chris Citowicki said with a laugh. "We keep creating legitimate opportunities. They've all been good chances it's been a matter of the ball not going in the goal. So I'm just happy that it finally did."
Montana will wrap up the regular season with away matches at Northern Colorado next Sunday and Eastern Washington on Oct. 30, both of which are Nos. 2 and 3 in the standings respectively. The Big Sky Conference tournament is Nov. 6-10 in Greeley, Colorado.
And a win like Sunday's provides plenty of confidence building as the final stretch approaches.
"It's one, two and three playing against each other here down the stretch," Citowicki said. "Should be fun."