02 Dec 2021 | 07:54 | Soccer
Montana redshirt freshman goalkeeper Camellia Xu has been named the Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season, the league office announced on Tuesday.
Xu made six saves while facing 26 shots as the Grizzlies, in their only match of the week, upset Long Beach State 1-0 on Thursday night in the Beach’s home opener.
Long Beach State, which had been getting votes in the national poll ever since winning at No. 8 Pepperdine, entered the match ranked fifth in the West Region by the United Soccer Coaches.
The only other team to previously shut out Long Beach State this season had been UCLA, which is now 8-0-0 and ranked No. 3 in the nation.
It was Xu’s third consecutive shutout, following 6-0 and 1-0 victories over Texas Southern and Boise State, respectively, and her fourth clean sheet in five games. Boise State was also regionally ranked.
Xu’s goals-against average now stands at 0.97 while her save percentage has improved to .806. Her four shutouts are tied for first in the Big Sky with Idaho senior Avrie Fox.
That’s four shutouts in her first six full matches played for the goalkeeper who spent last season learning behind Claire Howard, whose 32 career shutouts set a new Big Sky record.
“That was the most influential aspect of how well I’m doing now,” Xu said. “Had I just come in and played right away, I would have lost a lot of knowledge that I learned on the bench.
“Spending time hearing what the coaches are saying and seeing a different perspective really pushed me to become who I am now. It was a huge advantage.”
Xu played the second half and overtimes in the season opener at Creighton, then started and played the first half against Portland, splitting time with junior Elizabeth Todd opening week.
Xu has played every minute of every match since then.
“Playing at Creighton was just a lot of firsts. I hadn’t experienced an NCAA game before,” she said. “Going to Long Beach, it was nerves mostly because I cared so much and really wanted to win.”
In her fourth career start, at Gonzaga on Sept. 5, Xu faced 25 shots and gave up three goals. On Thursday night at Long Beach, she faced 26 shots. None of them entered the goal.
“The most important thing going into this game was not overthinking it. That was a mistake I made at Gonzaga. Oh my gosh, they are regionally ranked, top this, top that and scoring all these goals,” she said.
“I don’t know if it was because I was so in the zone, but I didn’t think about any of those things going to Long Beach. It was just doing what we know and doing it well.”
The Beach would have possession 65 percent of the match, outshoot the Grizzlies 26-4 and take 12 corner kicks to zero for Montana, yet the match was scoreless at the half.
As the game went deeper and deeper, it was more and more likely that it was going to come down to one play, one opportunity.
Considering Montana went 66 minutes between shots, the odds of that going the Grizzlies’ way was unlikely.
Yet that’s how it happened. A goal kick by Xu made its way just past midfield to the feet of Jaden Griggs, who got the ball to Taylor Stoeger, who found Sydney Haustein streaking toward goal.
Xu stood at the opposite end of the field, seeing but maybe not quite believing.
“Oh my gosh, Stoeger has the ball. Oh my gosh, Sydney has the ball. Oh my gosh, she’s completely free and going forward and scoring,” said Xu.
“I was just standing there like, what just happened? Did we really just score? It was exciting but a delayed reaction for sure. I saw the ball roll in and it was just a sense of relief.”
That it happened in the 86th minute meant Montana didn’t have long to defend to collect the victory. It also meant Long Beach would throw everything it had at Xu. The Beach had nothing to lose.
Xu was in goal in the second overtime at Creighton, in a 1-1 game, when the Bluejays scored the game-winner with 46 seconds left.
“In my head it was just, not a repeat, not a repeat. I have five minutes to defend with my life and defend with my life I did,” she said.
The most harrowing moment came in the final minute, when Long Beach had a corner kick. The Beach sent everyone forward, even the keeper.
There was a shot that Xu saved, with the ball going off the post — “My posts are my best friends,” she said — then a mad scramble for the rebound, then the ball going over the end line, off Long Beach.
“When the ball went out for that last goal kick, it was the biggest rush of relief,” said Xu.
With the clock under 20 seconds, Montana could start celebrating. All Xu had to do was kick the ball away. “Taking that goal kick was amazing.”
Montana will take its three-match winning streak on the road this week, opening Big Sky play at Northern Arizona on Friday night in Flagstaff.
The Lumberjacks were picked first in the preseason poll, the Grizzlies second.
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