When the Grizzlies took the court for a pair of matches in Las Vegas over spring break, it was the team’s first time playing outdoor tennis in six months.
“It’s pretty difficult coming outside when you’ve been playing indoor tennis with no sun, no wind,” freshman Oisin Shaffrey said. “It’s hard to adjust.”
Montana faced off against two Mountain West Conference opponents last week, UNLV and Boise State. Despite losing both matches, the Grizzlies held close with a pair of teams that have beaten down all of their Big Sky foes this season.
“We could’ve gotten very big wins, against UNLV yesterday or Boise State today,” senior Alex Canellopoulos said. “You either win or your learn and I thought we learned a lot in these matches that will make us better for conference. I’m confident we’ll do well in those last five matches.”
The Grizzlies hope their few days in the sun will give them an advantage as they jump back into conference play this week in Missoula. The Grizzlies, who were picked second in the 11-team league prior to the season, are 3-2 and sitting in fourth place at the midway point.
“We got off to a real slow start,” junior Max Korkh said. “We have progressed and I think our freshmen are playing a lot better than they did two months ago. But it’s definitely been a really long two months and it’s been a good learning experience for all of us.”
Now, the Grizzlies return to Missoula to start a five-game stretch of conference games to end the season. The team will host Sacramento State on Thursday and Idaho State on Saturday. The Idaho State match is scheduled to be the Grizzlies' first outdoor match in Missoula this season.
If the Grizzlies get the green light to play at the Robert O. Lindsay Tennis Complex on campus, it’s unlikely the weather will match what they saw in Las Vegas last week. But when the matches were scheduled, head coach Jason Brown wasn’t trying to prepare his team for the upcoming outdoor matches in Missoula. His eyes were on the end of the season.
“At the end of the day, that week here is just a preparation for Phoenix,” Canellopoulos said.
In the Big Sky Conference, the top six teams qualify for the end-of-season league championship, which will be held in Phoenix this year. Montana hasn’t missed a Big Sky Championship since 1990, but the majority of the Grizzlies’ current roster wasn’t around last season. Of the nine student-athletes on the roster, six are freshman. One is a senior.
“(College tennis) is completely different to playing singles on your own,” Shaffrey said. “There’s a huge team aspect and you feel it when you’re playing. You’re playing for the team, as well, which is nice. Tennis has always been missing that for me.”
Brown said the younger players on the roster have developed over the course of the season and are ready to contribute to a stretch run for Montana.
“The future looks really bright for Griz tennis,” Brown said.
Brown was the conference coach of the year in 2018, his first season as a college head coach. Part of the reason was Montana’s undefeated record at home. The Griz will try to keep their home court advantage rolling this weekend.
“Guys are comfortable,” Brown said. “We spend hundreds of hours there practicing, so it feels real comfortable. We feel pretty excited about going home.
The Grizzlies will host Sacramento State 12:30 p.m. Thursday at the Peak Racquet Club. They play Idaho State noon Saturday on campus at the Robert O. Lindsay Tennis Center.