(Editor’s note: Story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA — On Tuesday, freshman Ed Pudney spent his 19th birthday curled up in a ball in his dorm room with a nasty dose of stomach flu.
Two days later he was thrust into the spotlight for the Montana men’s tennis team as it was tied with Sacramento State 3-3 with the win resting on his shoulders heading into a third set.
Despite a lion’s effort, it was not to be for the Grizzlies as Pudney ran out of gas, and Sacramento State snuck out of Missoula with a 4-3 win that came down to the closest of margins.
Earlier in the match, Montana lost the doubles point in a tiebreaker on court three, where Grizzlies Oisin Shaffrey and Pontus Hallgren had a match point slip out of their grasp that would have won the round for UM, and eventually given the Griz a 4-3 win.
But the doubles point instead went to the Hornets, and it made all the difference as the Griz fell to 6-11 overall and 3-3 in Big Sky play, while Sac State moved ahead of UM in the standings at 4-2 in the standings (6-10 overall).
“Sac State is a really good team. If they end up winning the conference that wouldn’t surprise me. That’s a good team from top to bottom. We had some great efforts though, and the margin was literally one single point. It couldn’t be closer,” said head coach Jason Brown.
With another critical home conference match coming up on Saturday against Idaho State and with six freshmen on the nine-man squad, Brown isn’t allowing the Griz to take the loss in stride. Instead, it’s becoming a teachable moment.
“Unfortunately, the close ones haven’t been going our way, but I think it’s part of the process for these freshmen. The only way you get better in this situation is by being in it and getting used to it, and making it the norm,” Brown added.
Montana found itself in a battle to open the match in the doubles round, with the point being decided with a tiebreaker on court three.
Max Korkh and Pudney improved to 5-2 as a pair with a clean 6-1 win on court two over the Hornet’s Snowdon-Poole/Hall duo, putting the Griz up early in the round.
Sac State returned the favor on court one, with Alex Canellopoulos and Ludvig Hallgren falling to the Hornet’s fourth-ranked Losbergs/Chabut pair, who now sit at 8-3 together on the season.
That left the doubles point hanging in the balance on court three with Shaffrey and Hallgren, both freshmen, taking on Sac’s junior/senior combo of Legaspi/Miller.
After going back and forth for most of the set and finding themselves up 5-4 with a serve, Montana had a match point dialed up, but a missed return gave the Hornets the game to tie it 5-5 and shift the momentum.
After more back and forth, the match was pushed to a tiebreaker and UM found itself holding serve up 4-2. Shaffrey missed on the following serve and gave it back to the Hornets who charged back to knot the breaker 4-4. Sac State would then take that momentum and run to a 7-5 win that sealed the point for the visitors, and eventually be the difference maker in the match.
In singles Ludvig Hallgren dominated on court two, sweeping the first set over Dom Miller 6-0 before sealing the court three win with a 6-4 victory in the second set that tied the overall match 1-1.
UM then took its first lead of the day on court two with an equally dominant straight-set win from Korkh over Hermont Legaspi 6-2, 6-2, that put the Griz out to a 2-1 lead.
Canellopoulos, the reigning Big Sky Player of the Week, couldn’t carry over the magic he had in Vegas against Mikus Losbergs, Sac State’s powerful three-time All-Big Sky senior. Neck-and-neck the whole way, Canellopoulos dropped the first set but forced a tiebreaker in the second set. “AC” held a late lead in the breaker, but Losbergs’ strength saw him through to a 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) win in the breaker, tying the overall match 2-2.
Shaffrey then dropped a three-set grinder to Johannes Gjerdaker on court four, bouncing back from a first set loss, but falling in the third 5-7, 6-4, 3-6. That loss put the Hornets out to a 3-2 lead with leads on courts five and six that would be the deciders.
Pontus Hallgren then broke through for a straight-set win on court six that required extra tennis in both sets (7-5, 7-6 (7-3)), tying the overall match again at three.
But just as Hallgren was finishing, Pudney was hitting a wall, leaving it all on the court in a second-set tiebreaker before falling 6-1 in the third and final set to give the visitors the 4-3 win.
Montana will now prepare for another crucial home match on Saturday when the 4-2 ISU Bengals come to town for a Big Sky match at the Peak Racquet Club at Noon.
The Grizzlies remain in control of their own destiny following the loss to Sac State and needing to finish in the top six on the league table to advance to the championship tournament, but it won’t be easy. Montana will likely have to win three of its last four matches to advance, with road trips to Eastern Washington and Montana State on tap, and a home match against Southern Utah to cap the season.