Sept. 30, 2013
Liat Zimmermann is the type of player that separates a nationally ranked program like Rice from the Montana's women's tennis program. At least that's the conventional wisdom.
The Owls finished last season with a record of 21-5 and a national ranking of No. 22. Their season didn't come to an end until they faced Stanford in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Zimmermann, who started her career at Miami before transferring to Rice, played a big role in the Owls' success. She went 14-5 last spring while playing mostly No. 3 singles.
Montana junior Precious Gbadamosi, the Grizzlies' lone entry in Flight 1 at last weekend's Rice Invitational in Houston, knew none of that. And that's how she prefers it.
"I never know who I play before I get on the court," said Gbadamosi, who returned to her hometown for the tournament and brought along teammates Maddy Murray, a senior, and juniors Sasha Carter and Laurence Pelchat. "If you know too much, it just creates too much pressure and too many nerves.
"I didn't know (Zimmermann) played No. 3 last year or how good she was or anything. I just go out there and do my thing and hopefully it works."
Zimmermann would have to agree that it did. She won just three games as Gbadamosi rolled to a 6-2, 6-1 victory over the Owl in an opening-round match on Friday.
It was one of many tournament highlights as head coach Steve Ascher's Grizzlies played interlopers at a tournament expected to be dominated by name-brand schools from Texas: Rice, Texas A&M, Houston. Montana finished 6-6 at the tournament in its dozen singles matches.
"It just shows where we are as a program," Gbadamosi said. "We can compete with these really good teams."
Gbadamosi made the final of Flight 1, and Pelchat advanced to the championship of Flight 4. She, too, is an adherent of the philosophy of pre-match ignorance.
"We didn't really know what to expect as far as the level of tennis," Pelchat said, "and that's what's so great about Steve's way of coaching. He doesn't want us to look at the draw and say, `Ah, I'm playing the first seed.'
"It's great to just get on the court with your opponent, warm up with her and learn what her strengths and weaknesses are as things go along."
That approach fueled Pelchat's run to the championship match of Flight 4. After dispatching a player from Texas-Arlington in straight sets in the first round, Pelchat found herself down a set in the semifinals to Texas A&M's Mason Strickland, who opened with a 6-2 victory.
Taking what she learned from her two wins in the opening set, Pelchat went to work on Strickland and won going away, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.
"She would just be in the back and return everything with a lot of spin, so I really had to finish every point," Pelchat said. "I knew that's how I had to play if I wanted to beat her.
"The first set that I lost, I wasn't even in the match because I was trying to do way too much. After every set you have to figure out what worked and what didn't, and I knew what I did right to win those two games, even if it was only two that I won.
"I just had to go simple and move her and control the point with my forehand and come up and finish the point at the net."
Carter picked up a win over a player from Rice in Flight 3, and Murray had a straight-set victory over a McNeese State player in Flight 4.
Beyond the benefits of the level of competition the Grizzlies competed against, Ascher scheduled the Rice tournament as a homecoming for Gbadamosi and a return to Texas for Murray, who hails from Dallas.
Though the Grizzlies were almost 2,000 miles from home, the Gbadamosis and Murrays gave Montana a vocal cheering section.
"It was so good to have my family there and for them to come out and see me play," said Gbadamosi, who has an older brother, a younger brother and a younger sister who plays at Cleveland State. "It had been a while."
Montana will next compete at the ITA Mountain Regional at Las Vegas from Oct. 9-12. Perhaps Zimmermann could let the region know what's coming.
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