By Stayson Isobe, NAU Media Relations
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – It was the morning of August 24, 2011 and two of the Northern Arizona women's tennis team's newest recruits, one from California and one from Florida, were texting each other in anticipation of finally starting their Lumberjack tennis careers together. Two recruits from opposite ends of the country would finally be able to see each other for the first time after striking up a friendship on their recruiting trips to the Mountain campus in February. And then everything changed.
Jovana Vasic, a transfer from St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Fla., was killed in a fatal car crash while driving through Wheeler County in Texas with her father on her way to Flagstaff. Just hours before the fatal accident that took Vasic's life that morning, Vasic and freshman Hannah Stone were talking through texts just as they had been since they first met earlier in the year.
"My dad drove me up on Wednesday the 24th and I was texting her in the morning," Stone said. "Then she stopped texting me around 9 a.m. and I thought maybe her phone died because I knew she was already in Oklahoma or something. I got here in the afternoon and it was around 10 p.m. after I finished unpacking. I was wondering where she was because I was waiting for her call, so I went on Facebook to see if she posted anything on there. When I saw all of these 'Rest in Peace' posts from her close friends, I just broke down."
After they both went their separate ways following their recruiting trips, the two friends had planned to meet up in Los Angeles one time when Vasic was there with her family. But the timing didn't work out. As a result, their budding friendship grew through text messages, so the anticipation of seeing each other in months was at an all-time high.
"We really actually got close over the phone," Stone said. "Our last night here (in February), we got each others' numbers and she told me 'if I go here, you better go here.' When we both committed, we were really stoked. We always joked that we had a long distance relationship and there was a lot of anticipation in finally being together. It was weird that we never really got to hang out with each other, but it was cool that we became close in that way. I just wish I could've spent more time with her in person."
Stone, a native of Temecula, Calif., considered schools in her home state such as San Jose State and Loyola Marymount in addition to NAU during the recruiting process. But after taking her recruiting trip here, she committed right away.
"NAU was one of my last visits and I really liked the area and the school was really nice," Stone, a public relations major, said. "I took a tour of the Communications building and I loved it. As far as tennis, I loved Coach Bruno's coaching style and her personality. Plus I loved the girls; they were fun off the court, but serious on the court. Before my visit, I watched them play a match in Santa Barbara and I could see myself on the team."
Stone comes into the Lumberjack tennis program as a highly accomplished high school player. A team captain and all-league selection at Great Oak High School, Stone was a top-60 ranked player in Southern California. As a sophomore, she helped lead her team to the CIF quarterfinals.
This fall, Stone has made an immediate impression on the team, posting eight singles victories, tied for tops on the team with fellow freshman Johanna Vang, through the team's first six tournaments. She also has seven doubles wins to her name, partnering with both juniors Ghizelene Doballah and Alice Pacaut on different occasions.
"I saw her attitude and her cool, fun personality that people want to be around when I was recruiting her," said NAU director of tennis Kim Bruno. "But she's come in and played even better tennis than I expected, which is a bonus. She's very coachable and sticks to a winning game plan. Her ability to really keep people under pressure has stood out to me."
Most impressively among her early success this fall, Stone advanced to the third round of the main draw at the ITA Mountain Regional Championships, before falling to the fifth-seeded player in the tournament. Stone, along with Doballah, also claimed the team's only doubles victory at the tournament in her first taste of regional competition.
"I was playing really well at the tournament and my focus level really took a jump," Stone said. "Making it to the third round was really cool. I felt comfortable on the court and I was in my zone and it really pumped me up."
Going into the team's main season in the spring, Bruno will be counting on Stone to help replace four graduating seniors from last season's team that reached the Big Sky championship match for the sixth consecutive year.
"My expectations of her grow daily," Bruno said. "She has the ability to be one of our greatest team leaders and because she's one of our most competitive kids, she'll raise our level of competition as a team as a freshman. When you have that personality with a chip on your shoulder because you want to prove some things, Hannah's come in with that, and I expect her to take our team to places even as a freshman."
All of the success and expectations despite the tragedy that Stone endured just days before the semester started. Even though Stone and Vasic, who would've been a junior at NAU this year, expected to be teammates over the next two years, Stone knows that her fallen teammate is with her on the court, making the grieving process an easier one to undergo.
"Jovana was always happy," Stone said. "Anytime I would say something negative, she would tell me happy thoughts. Her attitude was very contagious. During matches, I'm playing for her now. She wouldn't want me to get mad on the court, so I when I lose a point, I just move on to the next point. It hasn't gotten easier yet, but it helps to think that she's with me on the court."
Two months later, Vasic's passing still hits close to home amongst the women's tennis program. But with their teammate watching over them, the Lumberjacks' future remains brighter than ever with Stone at the core for years to come.
"Our team has really come together and I think it's really going to inspire her and the rest of us," Bruno said. "Hannah is going to be a great player for NAU in the upcoming years, I can guarantee that."