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Griz goalie Claire Howard posted her fourth shutout of the season during the Southern Utah University game Sept. 24, 2017. Griz soccer defeated SUU 1-0. 

Montana’s defense turned the ball over just outside its own box, giving a Washington State forward an open shot on goal. Claire Howard, Montana’s goalkeeper, reacted quickly to the shot, diving full-extension to her left and pushing the ball wide.

Howard, a redshirt freshman from Santa Rosa, Calif., has been on fire in between the posts for Grizzly soccer. In the 11 games that she has participated in, she has recorded 33 saves and allowed only eight goals. The Grizzlies have posted four shutouts with her in goal. She had some big shoes to fill replacing last year’s Big Sky Goalkeeper of the Year, Kailey Norman, but so far she has done it admirably.

The numbers are impressive for any player, let alone a freshman. She is tied for first in the Big Sky for shutouts, third in the save column and has the fourth best save percentage at 80.5 percent. She has faced a ranked Nebraska team, but now gets an easier schedule against some Big Sky foes.

“Mainly I treat every game the same, it doesn’t matter if we are facing the No. 14 ranked team in the country or just somebody in our conference. Anybody can beat anybody on any given day so I try not to take anything too lightly,” Howard said. “I just try to mentally prepare myself, I do visualizations and focus on making the save in my head.”

After her recent performance against two Pac-12 teams, Oregon and WSU, she earned Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week, the second Griz player to win the award this season. She posted a total of 12 saves and only allowed one goal to Oregon, which came from a penalty.

She also posted a shutout against WSU, a game that went the distance to double overtime and resulted in a 0-0 draw. The Griz played with just 10 players for about 17 minutes after senior Kaitlin Crowell received a red card.

“When your goalkeeper is playing that well it gives the team confidence,” head coach Mark Plakorus said. “Especially your defenders, and when your defenders are having that much confidence in the person behind them that makes them play more freely and they’re not going to worry about anything but what’s in front of them because they know (Howard) is going to do a good job to keep the ball out of the net.”

Howard started playing soccer when she was 4 years old because a lot of her friends were joining the local recreation league — a group of friends she would end up playing with until her senior year of high school. She didn’t become a goalkeeper until she was 12 years old, but when she did she fell in love with the position immediately.

When the former goalkeeper of her club team would go on vacation during the summer, Howard would step up. The team wanted to compete so they needed to find a dedicated goalkeeper. Her head coach thought Howard had some good qualities to being a keeper and thought she would fit well in the position.

One of the most memorable moments for Howard during her playing career was going to nationals with her Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) club team, Santa Rosa United, in the summer of 2015. They didn’t finish well, but to Howard it was the opportunity that made it special.

“Going to nationals was a big deal for me, it was something our whole team wanted to do, and that was to compete for a national championship. No matter what level you do that at whether it’s at the collegiate or club it’s very hard to come by and we were all just really excited that all our hard work paid off,” Howard said.

Howard’s competitive side comes out when she plays soccer, and she has learned many life lessons that other things could not have taught her.

She said the game is very close to her heart. While Howard knows her home will always be California, she wanted to go out of state for school. She said that adapting to the weather and having to deal with snow for the first time was a challenge, but she seems to be happy with the decision of becoming a Grizzly.

“One of the main things that persuaded me to be a Griz is just how the program was ran and I really respected Mark as a coach,” Howard said. “When I came out on my visit and met all the girls it just felt like a school that I could be successful at athletically and academically.”