It took three sets in the final match of the day, but freshman Lucia Badillos defeated Olivia Boija and the Idaho women’s tennis team beat 13-time consecutive champion Sacramento State 4-3 Sunday on the Hornets home court to take the Big Sky Championship.
Despite coming off a season in which they ran through the Western Athletic Conference to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament, the Idaho women’s tennis team wasn’t the team to beat in the Big Sky Conference this spring.
The Vandals knew they were going to have to beat one of the most dominant programs in the country in Sacramento State if they wanted to add back-to-back conference championship trophies to the trophy case.
The Vandals had an early look at the defending champions Feb. 13, which resulted in a close 4-3 loss. The Vandals went into the conference tournament with this loss circled.
After the early-season matchup, the two teams ran through the Big Sky with the Hornets notching a perfect 11-0 record and the Vandals on their heels with a 10-1 mark.
After a 4-1 victory over Montana in the conference semifinal, the Vandals had just what they wanted — a chance to knock off the defending champions on their home court.
But even though everything was at stake in the championship match, the Vandals were playing with nothing to lose.
“I talked to the team after the Montana match and told them we have done more than what we were expected and so right now we just gotta go out there and have fun,” Idaho coach Mariana Cobra said. “The pressure is on them, not us.”
After being tied going into the final match, the Vandals had the chance to snap the Hornets’ streak and possibly start one of their own.
After dropping the first set of the No. 6 singles match, Badillos completed the comeback in three sets, taking the final two sets over Sacramento State’s Boija. The Vandals won the match and the championship and avenged their lone conference loss in dramatic fashion.
The Vandals won the match despite losing the doubles point and losing the No. 1 singles point. They had won the doubles point in every conference match this season and sophomore Galina Bykova had been undefeated at No. 1 singles all season in conference play prior to the championship match.
“It was a tough situation going into singles playing the defending champions, at their home, being down 1-0 and then have your freshman clinch the match after she was down 5-1 in the second set,” Cobra said. “It was definitely not what we were expecting, but it was an amazing moment for the whole team.”
Along with dropping the doubles point Sunday, they also lost the doubles point Saturday in the semifinal win, but they were able to pull off four straight wins in singles. Cobra said this showed the team is playing its best tennis of the year, which they have tried to prepare for all season.
Bykova losing was uncharted territory for them as she had been a de facto guaranteed point all season, Cobra said. She defeated SSU’s Alina Soltanici earlier in the season, but fell in straight sets Sunday. But the team stepped up and was able to gut out a tough victory.
The win is deja vu in some respects as the team defeated the favorite and host team, New Mexico State last season in the WAC Championship.
“Being Big Sky champions has been our goal the whole year,” Cobra said. “They won the conference (the WAC) last year, but it was a different situation. There wasn’t a dominant team every year like Sacramento State, who had won the last 13 years, and so this was a huge win not only for making the NCAAs but also making a statement in the Big Sky.”
The Vandals will now compete in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. Last season, the Vandals were swept by USC in the opening round in Los Angeles. The team will learn who it will play when the tournament bracket is unveiled at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
Joshua Gamez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Gamez_VN