The 2013-2014 season ended with a conference championship for the Idaho men’s tennis team — a WAC championship that is.
A year later, the Vandals head into the conference championships with high hopes of winning two in a row. This year though, it’s in the tougher Big Sky Conference.
The top six teams from the Big Sky head off to Sacramento, California, and Gold River Racquet Club for the Big Sky Championship Tournament and for a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Weber State and Idaho clinched the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, and will get a first-round bye Friday.
“We’re looking forward to this weekend and the chance to win a conference title and win the NCAAs,” Idaho coach Jeff Beaman said. “It has been a rollercoaster of a season with the team playing amazing at times and struggling at others. This weekend will be about how every player competes.”
A rollercoaster of a season is right.
After a season-opening loss to Gonzaga, the Vandals ripped off five straight victories and won 10 of their next 13 matches into conference play. That was when the losses started stacking up, but luckily not to many Big Sky members. A March 16 loss to Wichita State followed by an ugly 2-5 defeat at the hands of Northern Arizona kicked off a 1-4 skid.
When the conference games started again with Idaho State, Montana and North Dakota though, Idaho found itself in the win column again, winning all three. The rest of the season wasn’t too pretty though, and the Vandals lost their last three matches to Eastern Washington, Boise State and Utah State.
Idaho finished the year 14-11 with an 8-3 Big Sky record — a three-win improvement from last year’s 11-14 record.
Now, the Vandals are set for the championship tournament. Despite finishing tied for third with Montana and Montana State, the Vandals got the tiebreaker and the No. 2 seed.
No. 3 seed Montana plays No. 6 seed Northern Arizona Friday and No. 4 seed Montana State will play No. 5 seed and host of the tournament Sacramento State. Idaho will play the highest remaining seed from those two games Saturday morning, while Weber State will play the lowest.
Idaho has found a lot of success against most teams in the tournament. They beat both Montana State and Sacramento State in Spokane in mid-March and beat Montana April 11 in Lewiston.
They lost on the road 2-5 to both Northern Arizona and Weber State in March.
The Big Sky overall is arguably a tougher conference than the WAC was last year. But with Idaho’s 3-2 record against the teams in the tournament and its 3-0 record against the three possible teams they will face in the second round, the championship is within reach.
“We really need all of the players to play at their best to have a chance to win,” Beaman said. “This week a lot of our focus was getting healthy, but we will practice hard on specific parts of some of the guys’ games and match play in the California conditions on Thursday and Friday.”
Ben Evensen can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BenE_VN