050414 griz tennis

The University of Montana men's tennis team poses after winning the Big Sky Conference championship for the first time in school history.

Big Sky Conference

Nearly two weeks after climbing to the top of the Big Sky’s tennis mountain, the Montana men’s tennis team is faced with the challenge of scaling up an even steeper incline.

The Griz duel the Oklahoma Sooners (23-3) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Norman, Oklahoma.

UM coach Kris Nord said the academic stress of the semester’s last few weeks is a difficult time to prepare for a match of this magnitude.

“It’s new territory for us,” Nord said. “We’re normally able to focus on finals right now, and we’re absolutely ecstatic that we haven’t ended the season, but we’re still trying to balance school with probably the best team we’ve played in my tenure here.”

It’s truly uncharted territory, as this is the latest in the spring semester that Nord’s squad has ever played a match.

“It’s been tough,” Nord said. “Coming down off the Big Sky championship and then trying to catch up in school and everything, I’m hoping our guys can recharge, have a couple of good practices and be ready to go.”

The Griz, who have won seven of their last eight matches, defeated Weber State 4-0 for their first Big Sky tourney title. Since then, Nord has earned coach of the year, Andrew Warren was named the conference’s most valuable player, and Tomasz Soltyka, Semion Branzburg and Ethan Vaughn have all earned all-league honors.

Dominant only begins to describe UM’s next opponent. The Sooners were ranked No. 1 in the country for the majority of the season, and are the second overall seed in the entire NCAA tournament field. Currently, all six of OU’s singles players are nationally ranked.

“We’ve looked at every single player in the lineup, and they’re loaded,” Nord said. “It’s a team that really has no weaknesses, and we have to not only play to our potential, but hopefully play a little bit better than that and see what happens.”

Nord said his team is excited for the challenge of playing such a high-caliber team.

“Once they see the facilities and the attention around the NCAAs, we’re going to get charged up,” Nord said.

Seniors Mikolaj Caruk and Warren have the opportunity to play the Nos. 1 and 2 singles players for one of the nation’s top teams, and underclassmen like Branzburg, Soltyka and Peter Mimnagh-Fleming will gain invaluable experience that should pay dividends throughout their UM careers.

“We’re going to try and win matches, and do our very best,” Nord said. “But we’re also realistic in that this is a very good team. We want to play to our potential and that will please me, but there’s a chance they overlook us at spots.”

​Reach the Missoulian newsroom at @missoulian, at newsdesk@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5240

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