FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – With all six starters back in 2013, the Northern Arizona women's tennis team faces a stiff opening weekend of spring competition that features two nationally-ranked in-state rivals. The Lumberjacks will head south for three matches this weekend starting with a doubleheader in Tucson on Friday versus No. 29 Arizona and UC Davis followed by a quick turnaround against No. 37 Arizona State in Tempe on Saturday.
"Win or lose, I want to see us compete at our hardest and give these teams a solid run for their money," said director of tennis Kim Bruno. "These teams are tough teams for us to compete against but it will show us right away where we are and where we need to be. Our team has grown tremendously since the fall (season) and this weekend will be a true test of where we need to go from here which is what we need at this time of the season."
In stark contrast to a year ago when Bruno needed to replace four graduating starters, she returns each member of her top-six lineup from last spring that includes a total of four All-Big Sky selections. In their first season as Lumberjacks in 2012, senior Ghizelene Doballah and sophomore Hannah Stone, last season's top-two occupants in the NAU lineup, both garnered first team all-conference in their first seasons, as did sophomore Johanna Vang who earned All-Big Sky honorable mention. Senior Malia Wahinepio, one of only two returning starters at the start of the 2012 campaign, also was named honorable mention for her third all-conference selection in as many years.
Doballah compiled a 9-13 record as the Lumberjacks' top player in the lineup and was followed by Stone, Wahinepio and Vang in the No. 2-4 spots, all of whom posted double-digit win totals. Wahinepio, Vang and senior Alice Pacaut each tallied a team-best 11 singles victories. Senior Nicole Perez and Pacaut, the No. 5 and 6 players in 2012, are back for final season as is senior Alice Walker, who has been a reliable seventh option for the Lumberjacks over her career. Newcomers Tatum Rochin, a junior transfer from Pima Community College, and Jordan Denesik, a freshman from Anthem, Ariz., join the seven returning Lumberjacks on the roster.
In addition to their success individually in singles play, Stone and Vang were one of the top doubles pairs in the conference as freshmen. Their 13 doubles victories was the third most by any Big Sky duo last season and they carried that over into the fall season where they advanced to the round of 16 of the doubles main draw at the USTA/ITA Mountain Regional Championships.
The wealth of experience bodes well for the Lumberjacks as they enter 2013 as the second-rated team in the Big Sky as voted on by the conference head coaches. They'll look to dethrone 11-time defending conference champion and preseason unanimous favorite Sacramento State from the top of the standings.
"We're a better team because of all of the competition they had last year when we had four new players in our starting lineup," Bruno said. "We're playing a higher level than we've had in the past. Last year, two freshmen (Stone and Vang) came in and didn't understand how to compete at this level, but now they do. I have a really positive outlook on this season because we're more mentally and physically prepared."
A match against No. 29 Arizona on Friday kicks off the spring season for NAU. The Wildcats advanced to the second round of the NCAA Regionals last season and features a pair of regionally-ranked players. Kim Stubbe (No. 9) and Lacey Smyth (No. 13) are both ranked in the Southwest Region preseason ranks and the two also forms the No. 9 doubles team in the region.
Following the Arizona match, the Lumberjacks will play UC Davis in the second half of Friday's doubleheader. The Aggies defeated the Lumberjacks, 7-0, in NAU's spring opener last season. Stone and Vang claimed a victory at No. 2 doubles in their collegiate debuts, but UC Davis swept the remaining eight matches. Megan Heneghan is a two-time All-Big West singles first team selection and teamed with Layla Sanders, the pair comprises the No. 9 doubles team in the Northwest region.
To wrap up the weekend, the Lumberjacks will head to Tempe to take on No. 37 Arizona State, who also shut out NAU last season, 7-0. The Sun Devils' Desirae Krawczyk is ranked in both the ITA National Rankings at No. 86 and in the Southwest Region Rankings at No. 12. Jacqueline Cako is a two-time All-American and helped the Sun Devils to their 25th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Lumberjacks play Arizona at 10 a.m. and UC Davis at 3 p.m. at UA's LaNelle Robson Tennis Center on Friday. Their match against Arizona State will take place at the Whiteman Tennis Center on ASU's campus on Saturday at 12 p.m.
2013 Big Sky Preseason Poll (First Place Votes in Parentheses)
1. Sacramento State – 100 (10)
2. Northern Arizona – 87 (1)
3. Montana – 86
4. Northern Colorado - 69
5. Montana State – 63
T6. Eastern Washington - 44
T6. Weber State – 44
8. Idaho State – 37
9. Portland State – 28
10. North Dakota – 27
11. Southern Utah – 20