(Editor’s note: Story by Montana Sports Information)
PHOENIX, AZ – It was déjà vu all over again in more ways than one for the Montana men’s tennis team as senior Ignacio Tejerina once again provided third set heroics to seal a thrilling 4-3 victory over No. 2 Northern Arizona. But this time the win gives the Griz a return trip to the Big Sky championship.
For the second-straight day Montana’s win came down to the last set of the last match, and for the second-straight year, they will play for a title after upsetting NAU 4-3 for a second-straight time at the Phoenix Tennis Center – like Groundhog Day, but better.
“I thought there was no way to top last year’s match in terms of drama, but this was insanity. It was the closest dogfight of a college tennis match I’ve ever seen,” said interim head coach Jason Brown. “NAU is a great team. I don’t know how we won, but I know if you need to clinch a match you call Nacho Tejerina.”
The Griz now advance on for a rematch with the No. 1 seeded Idaho Vandals on Saturday at 2 p.m. (MT) in the Big Sky championship, with the winner receiving the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Montana defeated the Vandals in their only previous meeting this season, picking up a 5-2 win in Missoula on April 12.
UM was forced to again play from behind against NAU, dropping the doubles point and the first singles match to fall down 2-0 early. But like they did against Southern Utah on Thursday, the Griz rallied with big wins from the bottom of the order to deliver the overall victory, sealed by Tejerina’s 7-6 (7-3), 3-6, 6-3 win on court four.
“It was an exact repeat of yesterday. Nacho plays unbelievable when the match was tied at three to win. I’m so happy for that kid I can’t even tell you,” said Brown.
And like he did in Thursday’s win over SUU, Tejerina had ice in his veins as the senior embraced the pressure and came through with a huge win for his teammates.
“He told me during the match, I’m so happy to be here in the heat, grinding this out,” Brown added. “He wanted to be in that moment. You see people cower away from the moment, but he thrived when the pressure was on.”
Montana, the league’s best doubles team during the regular season, suffered its second-straight setback against NAU, falling on courts one and three to give the Lumberjacks the 1-0 lead after the doubles round.
The Griz went down early when Alexander Canellopoulos and Ludvig Hallgren dropped a 6-3 match to NAU’s Montano/Eguez pair on court three.
But at that time things were still looking up for UM, with Yannick Schmidl and Max Korkh holding the lead on court two and Victor Casadevall and Tejerina holding the lead on court one as well.
Schmidl and Korkh got back to their winning ways, picking up their tenth win in their last 11 matches by defeating Lucas Taylor and Adi Ziberstein 6-4, giving each team a win and leaving the match to be decided on court one.
Though they led by as many as two games, Casadevall and Tejerina couldn’t hold off a late charge by the formerly nationally ranked duo of Tim Handel and Thomas Fisher, with the ‘Jacks coming back to take a 7-5 win on court one to give them the overall doubles point.
NAU then pulled ahead 2-0 early in the singles round with Casadevall getting beat in straight sets on court one (6-2, 6-3) by Handel, the defending Big Sky MVP who went undefeated in league play this season.
But the Griz answered shortly after when Canellopoulos responded from a loss in doubles and overcame an injured leg from Thursday’s match to defeat Fisher, grinding out a tiebreak win in the first set and dominating the second to win 7-6 (7-3), 6-1.
“He might have beaten Federer today with the way he was playing from the tiebreak on,” said Brown.
Hallgren, Montana’s rock solid Swedish sophomore then tied the match 2-2 with a three-set win on court six, defeating Felix Schumann 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.
After the wins from Hallgren and Canellopoulos, the outcome of the overall match was hanging on the result of matches on courts two, four and five, with each going the distance to a third set for the second day in a row.
And for the second day in a row the outcome would come down to the result of one court, and again it would be the court of Nacho “The Clincher” Tejerina, who’s third set win on Thursday defeated Southern Utah 4-3.
On court two, Schmidl couldn’t finish off Lucas Taylor, losing a 5-4 lead late in the third set to drop the match 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 to put NAU up 3-2.
But that lead wouldn’t last long as Korkh pulled out his second-straight come-from-behind win (and only his second win of the season after dropping the first set) with a victory in a second set tiebreaker and a strong third set to win 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4.
“I think that was Max’s best match of his career. He focused and played lights out,” added Brown. “Overall this is the most mentally tough group of young men I’ve ever been around.”
With two marathon wins in the heat behind them, the Griz now turn their attention to Idaho, looking to avenge last year’s 4-0 loss in the championship match.
“Idaho is a good team, but we know what we’re getting with them,” said Brown. “Our goal this season was to be in this position. We wanted to face tough teams in the tournament to prepare us for this moment. It’s fun to be here, but now we just need to make it happen.”
The Vandals breezed into the championship earlier in the day, defeating Weber State 4-0 in the other semifinal to move on.