CollegeMontana Grizzlies


Montana tops Montana State, captures share of Big Sky women's tennis title

Grace Haugen
Posted at 6:36 PM, Apr 20, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-20 20:36:00-04

(Editor's note: Montana Athletics release.)

BOZEMAN — Hollywood couldn’t write a better comeback story than this.

Picked to finish fifth in the league’s preseason poll for a second-straight year after a decade mired in the depths of the Big Sky standings, no one predicted the Montana women’s tennis team to do what they did on Saturday.

And it’s the stuff Montana dreams are made of.

The Griz handed rival Montana State its only loss of the year in Bozeman, beating the Bobcats 5-2 to clinch a share of the program’s first Big Sky Conference regular season championship since 2014 to put the cherry on top of an already unbelievable season.

“A couple years ago we were the worst team in the conference,” said head coach Steve Ascher.

“There are players on this team, and I was coaching them, that was the bottom of the bracket. So, for the people that experienced that, to be able to turn it around and get a championship is just amazing.”

To get the win and take home a trophy, Montana pulled out a nailbiter in doubles that saw two of the three matches go to a tiebreaker. In singles, the top of the Grizzly lineup came through big with wins on courts one through three – two of which went three sets – to clinch the Brawl of the Wild victory.

“The courage, discipline, and composure they played with was off the charts. They really dialed into the gameplan. They knew what they needed to do strategically, but it’s easier said than done with so much on the line. They were able to step up and make shots, make a volley, it was just really fun. That’s one for the ages,” said Ascher.

Montana now heads to the postseason tournament as the No. 2 seed after capping the regular season at 6-2 in conference play and 8-11 overall during an improbable run to a title that included big wins up and down the schedule.

Beat six-time preseason favorites Northern Arizona? Check.

Beat first place Sacramento State? Check.

Beat defending champion Weber State? Check.

Beat Montana State in Bozeman? Check.

And so much more.

Sophomore Hailey Murphy solidified her case for Big Sky MVP with a straight set win on court one to improve her singles record to 16-3 and stay undefeated at 8-0 in league play at No. 1 having won now 10 straight matches.

Kelsey Phillips is also a strong contender for Freshman of the Year after winning yet another come-from-behind thriller against MSU, down a set and rallying from down 4-1 in a third set tiebreaker for UM’s second win.

Phillips, a native of Minnesota, is now 6-2 in conference play and 9-8 overall, having won eight of her last nine matches and having to pull four of those out in three sets with two tiebreakers thrown in for good measure.

After a turnaround job like that, Ascher is now in serious contention for his third Big Sky Coach of the Year award, having previously won in 2012 and the last time UM won a championship in 2014.

MSU, meanwhile, falls to 13-6 and at 4-4 in conference play will take the No. 4 seed at the tourney in Phoenix.

“MSU is very consistent. They don’t make a lot of mistakes and they don’t give you free points. So, we were able to take a little more risk and we had to win some points on our own because they didn’t give it to us,” said Ascher.

“We just wanted it. We talked about not waiting back for someone to make a mistake. You’re not going to be given a Big Sky title. We did that a little bit last week against ISU and today I think we went out and we got the win ourselves.”

Montana broke through with an early 1-0 lead after winning the doubles round in about as narrow of fashion is as possible in college tennis.

Grace Haugen and Rosie Sterk dominated on court two to start the round, blowing past MSU’s Cuquerella/Doughrty pair 6-0 to improve to 9-7 (6-2 BSC) as a pair this year and put the momentum firmly with Montana.

It was a different story on the other two courts, however, each in a dogfight and each decided by a tiebreaker.

Murphy and Phillips held a brief lead over MSU’s Garcia-Reboredo/Hawkins pair on court one, but it would the Bobcats would catch fire in the breaker and win the set 7-6 (1), leaving court three as the decider.

It was the opposite for Maria Goheen and Olivia Oosterbaan, who found themselves trailing 5-3 but got a break to force a tiebreaker. The Grizzly seniors then found themselves tied 3-3 in the extra frame, but took control when their team need it most, winning the set 7-6 (4) and clinching the point for UM.

In singles Murphy did what she’s done all season long: dominate.

While the other three matches underway at the time were barely finishing up first sets, Murphy was putting the finishing touches on Maria Garcia-Reboredo, powering her way to a 6-2, 6-4 win on court one to put UM up 2-0 in the team score in short order.

She capped her undefeated season at 16-3 overall and 8-0 in conference play and has now won ten straight matches, eight of which have come in straight sets.

She's in the mix to become Montana's first Big Sky MVP since 2014 when Hailey Driver – now an assistant coach with the team – helped lead the Griz to their last conference title.

“Honestly, it's breathtaking. Her tennis has been great. The composure and the ability to adapt and grow has been great. She keeps adding little pieces to her game and she’s just done so well,” Ascher added.

“Some of her matches have been tough and she's really had to work hard to problem solve through, commit to shots, come to the net, and finish balls and win some points on her own. That's not easy when you're playing the best player on the other team. So, to be undefeated at the number one spot is amazing.”

Phillips was the next to finish on court two, having to rebound from a first set loss to do it. The Grizzly freshman lost the first set to MSU’s Paula Dougherty in convincing fashion, but found a new gear in the second set to win and force a third. From there it was neck and neck until the two eventually played a tiebreaker for the third.

Phillips found herself trailing 4-1 in the extra frame, but stormed back to beat Dougherty 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4) in an epic finish to put UM up 3-0, and put the championship within sight.

On court three Haugen fed off that shift in momentum, coming back from a first set loss of her own to beat Meg McCarty in three sets, and she didn’t need a tiebreaker to do it. The UM junior won the last two sets convincingly, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, to clinch the win for the Grizzlies.

Oosterbaan then added the last win for the Griz on court five, beating MSU’s Felicia Jayasaputra in straight sets 6-2, 6-2 to give UM its fifth and final win.

Montana now sets its sights on a Big Sky tournament championship and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tourney.

The Griz earned the No. 2 seed at the Big Sky tourney and a first-round bye at the Phoenix Tennis Center in Arizona. They’ll face the highest remaining seed in the semifinal round on April 26 at 8 a.m.