Northern Arizona soccer was on the field in Ogden, Utah, on April 16 to begin training for the upcoming Big Sky Conference tournament championship match. The Southeast Division No. 1 Lumberjacks were set to take on the Northwest No. 1 Montana Grizzlies the next day for a berth in the NCAA tournament.
Less than 24 hours after celebrating a thrilling 1-0 victory over the Idaho Vandals, COVID-19 testing and contact tracing dictated that the championship game be canceled. The Lumberjacks’ season was over. Montana would be crowned champion and receive the automatic berth into national tournament.
"We regret that these two deserving teams, both of which won their divisions in impressive fashion during our regular season, will not have the opportunity to determine our champion on the pitch," Big Sky Conference Commissioner Tom Wistrcill said of the decision. "We feel for Northern Arizona's student-athletes and coaches who worked so hard to reach this moment, and hope that everyone involved remains safe and healthy. At the same time, we will look forward to cheering on Montana as the Griz proudly represent our conference in the national tournament."
Junior Madison Montgomery, who scored the lone goal in the semifinals, remembers loading the bus on April 16 to head to their practice session at Weber State University. Trainers came on and asked two girls to step off the bus, following the coronavirus tests the team had taken earlier that day.
The young women attempted to convince themselves that it was "no big deal."
“We had no idea; nobody had said they had any symptoms or anything. So, we were just kind of going about our regular day,” Montgomery said.
“That kind of just made everybody nervous. We tried to make it not a big deal, maybe it was just inconclusive. We got to the fields, and coach called us in and told us we needed to get off the field and go isolate.”
Just a few hours later, coaches announced on a team Zoom call that they would have to forfeit the game. The girls were shocked.
“People were not sure what to do. It didn’t personally set in for me for a few minutes that we weren’t playing. It was unreal, we worked so hard this entire season. We get here, it’s the day before the championship and we’re so close, and it’s just yanked out of our grasp,” Montgomery said.
But even though the Lumberjacks lost the chance to play the conference title game, they had much to be proud of in 2021.
Northern Arizona finished the season with a 7-2-1 record and won the Big Sky Southeast Division crown, going 5-1-1 in conference play.
Lumberjacks head coach Kylie Louw said the team played a more fluid, tactically sound style in 2021, rather than the "gritty" play of seasons past. She noticed teammates trusting each other more with the ball. A six-match unbeaten streak (5-0-1) from March 13 to April 3, and a spot in the championship match proved the scheme worked.
“It’s exactly where we wanted to be. We put ourselves in a position that got us to the championship game. So, I’m incredibly proud because there was no disappointment, other than obviously not being able to play,” Louw said.
On-field production was just one avenue in which players impressed the coaches and each other. Just getting through the unprecedented season took sincere effort.
The Lumberjacks spent nearly four months in Flagstaff, leaving home only for team activities and sporadic school assignments. Soccer was the lone in-person social interaction most of the players had for months, so bonds between teammates grew even stronger than they might have in more normal circumstances.
“It pushed us to rely on each other for things we’d normally rely on other friends or our family for,” Montgomery said.
Now the returning players, following a disappointing ending, are motivated to make up lost time in the 2021 fall season.
Not everybody who missed the conference championship game will be eligible to return though. The Lumberjacks’ graduating seniors saw both their season, and entire college soccer career, end abruptly on April 16. Five of the Lumberjacks’ usual starting 11 were seniors in 2021.
Seniors and graduate students constituted seven players overall. Though unable to officially meet to send off the graduates, much of the team met on Zoom on April 22 to congratulate the seniors on their successful athletic and academic careers.
Montgomery said the incoming squad, following an unusually quick turnaround from the COVID-19-fueled spring campaign, will have to learn fast to make up for lost productivity. The Lumberjacks, she said, will keep the 2021 graduates in mind as they attempt to make the run at a Big Sky championship that their former teammates could not complete.
“Even if they’re not on the team next year, we need to win this for them,” Montgomery said.
Louw has asked the players to take several weeks off, telling them, "Don’t even think about soccer" in the meantime. Official training for the 2021 season will begin Aug. 5, but Louw believes her players will hold unofficial practices over the summer to acclimate to each other and Flagstaff elevation.
The shock from being pulled off the field and out of the tournament is slowly wearing away. With a successful season behind them, and a desire to mend wounds caused from forfeiting the title game, spirits are high for Northern Arizona.
“Everyone’s excited for where the program’s at and the foundation we’re moving forward on,” Louw said.