FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Having gone 7-1 in the conference, the Northern Arizona women's tennis team enters this weekend's Big Sky Championship tournament as the second-seed and will play third-seeded Montana in the semifinals on Saturday at 10 a.m. Top-seeded Sacramento State, the 10-time defending conference champions, is the host and will play fourth-seeded Northern Colorado in the other semifinal at the Gold River Racquet Club in Sacramento, Calif.
"We have four new players in the starting six and they've never experience the conference tournament before so I'm looking to Nicole (Perez) and Malia (Wahinepio) for leadership," said director of tennis Kim Bruno. "We're going to be as ready as we can mentally and just play. We've had an up-and-down season and we're excited to be there in the second spot. We've consistently been in the top of the Big Sky and I think that says a lot about our program and NAU."
The Lumberjacks are riding a lot of momentum into the conference tournament after sweeping Portland State and Seattle last weekend to finish 10-12 in the regular season, their seventh consecutive double-digit win campaign.
This season has been a team effort by the Lumberjacks with five of the six starters recording between nine and 11 singles wins in the regular season. Freshman Johanna Vang and junior Alice Pacaut finished the season with a team-high 11 wins primarily as the No. 4 and 6 players in the NAU lineup.
NAU has been even better in conference play which bodes well for the team heading into the conference tournament. As a team, the Lumberjacks were 36-12 (.750 winning percentage) in conference singles play and 12-6 (.667) in conference doubles action. Vang and juniors Ghizelene Doballah and Malia Wahinepio each posted a 7-1 record against Big Sky opponents, while Vang and fellow freshman Hannah Stone posted a team-leading 4-2 conference doubles mark to go along with their 12-6 overall doubles record, also a team-best.
On Saturday, they'll battle Montana for a spot in Sunday's championship final. It is the third straight year the Lumberjacks will face the Grizzlies in the semifinal round with NAU winning the last two years by a 4-3 margin, including last year's marathon semifinal match that last nearly five and a half hours. Overall, the last three meetings have been decided by a 4-3 score, each of which the Lumberjacks have edged out the Grizzlies.
In their regular season match this season, the Lumberjacks held off the Grizzlies by the 4-3 margin on March 23 at Continental Country Club. NAU swept the doubles matches, although all three were close throughout, and then won the first three completed singles matches to clinch the match. Doballah, Wahinepio and Vang all claimed singles victories that day before Montana wrapped up the day by winning the final three singles matches.
All six of Montana's starters have double-digit singles victories with Maddy Murray and Precious Gbadamosi notching 14 wins each to lead the team.
Should the Lumberjacks get past the Grizzlies in the semifinals, a possible seventh straight meeting against the top-seeded Hornets looms with the conference championship and a berth to the NCAA Tennis Championships on the line. Sacramento State, ranked No. 52 in this week's ITA rankings, has defeated NAU, 4-0, in each of the last six years in the final, but this could be the year the Lumberjacks pull off the upset with the way they're entering the tournament.
"It's always different to play them at their place, it's a different scenario, but I'm hopeful," Bruno said. "They're a down this year and we're peaking when we need to peak and it can go either way. That's the beauty of the tournament. We're hopeful, we're excited and we just have to play our best tennis."
The Lumberjacks will be in search of their first Big Sky Championship since 1999. The winners of the semifinal matches will play for the championship on Sunday at 10 a.m.
"We haven't had the easiest time this season by any means, but we've come together at the right moments and stepped up," Bruno said. "That makes a championship team if you ask me. These girls deserve it if anything and hopefully they realize that and just get out there and play to their potential."