FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – On the heels of one of the finest regular seasons in program history, the Northern Arizona women's tennis team heads to Sacramento, Calif. this weekend to chase the Big Sky Championship, something that has eluded the program since 1999. The No. 3 seeded Lumberjacks begin their quest for the title on Friday in the Big Sky Championship quarterfinals at 2 p.m. against No. 6 seeded Montana State at the Gold River Racquet Club.
"The mindset is where it needs to be," said director of tennis Kim Bruno. "Our first match is Montana State and that's what we're focusing on right now. They're a good team, they've made the tournament for a reason and we can't overlook them and keep looking onto the future. In the tournament, anything can happen so that's our main priority and after that we'll reconnect and prepare for the next match."
The Lumberjacks finished the regular season last Saturday with a 7-0 blanking of Weber State to conclude the season with a 16-9 overall record and an 8-2 mark in conference. They won 10 of their last 11 matches with their only blemish being a 6-1 loss at No. 2 seeded Montana, their potential semifinal opponent should they defeat Montana State, on April 7. The 16 wins are the most the team has posted in a season since 2002 and they will have a chance to improve that number this weekend.
This spring, the Lumberjacks have ridden the balance of their lineup to 89 singles victories and 51 doubles victories as a team, both of which lead the conference. NAU's 89 singles wins heading into the conference tournament are tied for the third-highest single season total in program history with the 1997 and 2000 squads and is just six shy of the school record 95 wins that the 2002 team posted. All six of the team's starters have at least 10 singles wins, led by senior Nicole Perez's 18-7 record, and that is something that had not been accomplished since 2008. Perez is one shy of tying the school record of 19 wins set by Susanna Wallin in 2000. In all, five of the six starters – Perez, seniors Alice Pacaut and Ghizelene Doballah and sophomores Hannah Stone and Johanna Vang – have set career-highs in singles victories while senior Malia Wahinepio is just one win shy of tying her career-best.
As good as NAU has been in singles, its biggest strength at the moment could be their doubles play as the Lumberjacks have swept doubles play in each of their last 11 matches. The Lumberjacks' 32 consecutive doubles victories in total over the last five weeks have allowed them to gain the early momentum in their matches, which then has carried into singles play. Wahinepio and Pacaut own a conference-best 18-3 doubles record at No. 3 doubles, which is a new school record, to lead the team's three doubles pairs, each of whom own at least 14 victories and are on a win streak of eight or more consecutive matches. All together, NAU's 51 doubles wins are a new school record for most team doubles victories in a season.
Considering the team started the spring 0-4, the Lumberjacks have come a long way over the course of the last three months.
"In the beginning of the season, we got off to a really rough start but we got it together," Wahinepio said on the Lumberjacks Weekly Podcast. "Slowly we all picked up our game and we started to move on. We're pretty confident as a team going in. We want to take it one game at a time."
This weekend will be a tough test for the Lumberjacks as they will need to win three matches in three days to capture the Big Sky Championship. In particular, to win the title they will not only have to get past Montana State and Montana, who eliminated the team in the conference semifinals last year, but most likely No. 1 seeded Sacramento State as well. The Hornets enter the tournament as not only the hosts but as the 11-time defending Big Sky champions and winners of 103 straight conference matches, including regular season and tournament play, dating back to 2002. Sacramento State had defeated NAU in the championship match in the six years prior to last season.
"My freshman and sophomore years we came close finishing second," Wahinepio said. "Last year was an eye opener because we didn't even make it to the finals and now it comes down to this year. It would be lovely to bring a conference championship back for NAU."
The Lumberjacks defeated Montana State, 6-1, during the regular season in Bozeman. In their win on April 6, the Lumberjacks swept doubles play and earned wins at five of the six singles spots with the Bobcats' lone win coming at No. 4 singles. The Bobcats finished the regular season sixth in the conference following a 6-11 season which included a 5-5 record in Big Sky play. The Bobcats are led by Ellie Crum who posted an 11-6 singles record and 7-3 mark in conference. Crum claimed the only MSU win in the teams' regular season meeting.
Should NAU advance to the semifinals, it will face Montana on Saturday in the semifinals where it will look to exact some revenge against the Grizzlies. The championship match would be played on Sunday. The Lumberjacks will play at 2 p.m. each day throughout the weekend with the Big Sky men's matches being played every day at 10 a.m.
"The word to describe this weekend will be grueling," Bruno said. "We can't take anything for granted and do what we can do with our skills. We have the skills. We just have to play a little cleaner tennis and string lots of points together. That's a tough feat to do three days in a row but if we do that, we can walk away with (the championship)."