FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Following a 7-1 Big Sky regular season and a second-place finish in the conference, NAU freshmen Nicole Perez and Malia Wahinepio are ready for their first trip to the Big Sky Championship and a shot at the Lumberjacks' first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1999. The two natives of Arizona have become close during their freshmen campaign as starters in the Northern Arizona lineup and have helped each other mature as players through their initial collegiate season. Wahinepio, who will celebrate her birthday on Thursday before the team departs for Sacramento on Friday, and Perez sat down to talk about their first season on the mountain campus and their anticipation of competing in the conference championship.
Q: How excited are you to play in your first Big Sky Championship?
Malia Wahinepio: I'm very excited to get to play in it for the first time. I think all of the freshmen really stepped it up for us during the Spring. We work really well together as a team and I think we will come out strong in the championship.
Nicole Perez: I think this is a great opportunity to show how much we have improved over the year. As a team I think we will show a lot of spirit and how close we have gotten during the season.
Q: Do you feel like you have matured as players since the beginning of the season?
NP: Yes, but we still have a long way to go.
MW: We have learned a lot from the juniors on the team, not just about tennis but about how to be student-athletes.
NP: It was tough at first playing tennis and being in class, but we learned a lot from the other players about how to manage all of that.
Q: Is it helpful having family close by in Arizona and at a lot of your matches?
NP: Yeah it's really nice. At first it made me nervous having my parents watching but its great having their support.
MW: I like having them watching. It really gets me pumped up and into the match.
Q: Any pregame rituals?
NP: We always huddle up and sing "Lumberladies" before every match. Aimee Oki and I came up with it and then made up words for the whole song (to the tune of "Single Ladies").
MW: We had a dance for it but I think everyone forgot it. Coach Bruno sings with us too and it gets everyone really pumped for the match.
Q: What's it like being teammates with the international players?
MW: It is amazing! I love the fact that we have a diverse roster. I literally had no idea where Hungary was. But now I know about it and have friends from Hungary (juniors Edit Suhajda and Orsi Golovics) and that is really cool!
NP: It's really rare for college students in America to get to know people from other countries. It really gets you out of your little bubble and you get to see what its like outside of your little area. We definitely want to go visit them in Hungary some time!
Q: Do you enjoy traveling together with the men's tennis team?
NP: It is so much fun. I wish we traveled with them all of the time.
MW: It's great because we're like a big family.
NP: We are able to cheer each other on and that is really helpful, especially on the road. The girls cheer a little bit better though.
MW: Yeah, the guys need to step it up!
Q: You both have had long winning streaks this season. What was that like?
NP: It was nice for me since I started the season 0-4. I was really down on myself but I started practicing better and won 10 straight matches which really increased my confidence.
MW: It was nice getting off to a good start (won 10 of first 12 matches). The pressure is getting a little greater now that I have a lot of wins this season and other players are coming for me. It doesn't really mean that much though; I still have a lot to learn.
Q: If you face Sacramento State again (in the final), do you feel like you can win?
NP: I think so. If we bring ourselves to the highest level and leave all of our mental obstacles out of it, I think we have the potential to beat anyone we play this weekend.
MW: We learned a lot from the loss to them last Saturday and I think we can step it up. The pressure isn't going to be on us since they know we are out there to get them, and I really think we can beat them.
Q: How confident are you for the weekend?
NP: I think its going to be great. A lot of us will have family out there so that will give us more confidence. Being there with the guys will also be helpful as we will be able to watch each other play.
MW: We're going out there pretty strong and confident. I think it will be a big weekend. We're really excited.