Breakout freshman duo a welcome sight for women’s tennis
One of the most pleasant surprises of the spring came from one of NAU’s most successful programs, as the women’s tennis team saw a pair of freshman breakout to become the team’s strongest doubles pairing and each hold a top four singles position.
“Honestly, I didn’t realize it would be that much of a standout. I think they surpassed my expectations for sure,” said director of tennis Kim Bruno. “Their skills I knew would be there, but they really adapted well. They really embraced being a Lumberjack. They love wearing their NAU jerseys and it shows on court.”
The quick development was a welcome sign for the women’s tennis program that has recorded double digit wins in its past seven seasons and prior to this season, had reached the Big Sky Conference championship match the past six years.
But following the graduation of four seniors, the Lumberjacks featured a team of five juniors and just two freshmen, Hannah Stone and Johanna Vang.
The duo quickly became fixtures in the lineup and flashed the potential to be stars in the near future.
“It was really unexpected, actually. I kind of measured myself somewhere top 4, but nowhere near top 2,” said Stone, who played in the No. 2 spot for 21 of her 22 singles appearances. “That was a good surprise.”
Stone wasn’t alone in surpassing the expectations she had set for herself coming into the season, as Vang too felt she had eclipsed her own preseason predictions.
“I expected to be in the lineup, but I never expected to play this well,” Vang said. “I feel like I’ve grown as a player. I’ve grown enormously actually.”
Stone and Vang compiled a 13-6 doubles record this season playing primarily at the No. 2 position in the lineup, the most successful women’s pairing during the spring season. Stone finished her freshman campaign with a team-high 14 doubles wins and Vang wrapped up her initial college season with 11 singles wins. She finished in a three-way tie for the team lead.
The freshman partnership was set to debut during the fall season, but a canceled tournament at Northridge put the plans on hold until this spring.
“We were pretty bummed about that. We had one really good practice playing doubles together, and so we were like, ‘Oh, maybe this will work,’” Stone said. “Then spring we started out practicing like that and it was kind of just like a done deal after our first two matches.”
Vang said initially they did not believe they would play well together, but quickly that was proven false, as the two playing styles meshed together on the court.
“Hannah is really good from the baseline and I like my serve and volley. So, we just complement each other,” Vang said. “I’m able to build on my serve and she can go in with her volley and her baseline game.”
More important than their stylistic fit is their off-court relationship.
The pair came to NAU from drastically different places. Stone resides in Temecula, Calif. and Vang arrived from Sollentuna, Sweden. But in a short time the two have developed a close friendship off-court.
“We’re really good friends off the court and we know each other well.” Vang said. “What we have off the court, we just bring it into the court.”
That familiarity with each other has clearly contributed to the success the duo has seen in their on-court performance.
“They have so much chemistry; they play so well together. They just motivate each other at the right times. They play as a team and that’s hard to do sometimes,” Bruno said. “I mean, they are best friends on and off the court, so it’s been fun.”
While Stone and Vang are each talented singles players, Bruno highlighted the fact that two good individual players don’t always make a perfect pairing.
“Tennis is such an individual sport, sometimes you want to win the points by yourself and you see two singles players out there,” Bruno said. “But they really play doubles together, which makes it really enjoyable.”
With all seven members of this past season’s team returning next year, the two will continue to develop a strong rapport, while having the luxury of remaining in similar roles to this year.
But with the five juniors set to graduate next spring, Stone and Vang will be left with a whole new Lumberjack team for their junior years. While there is a whole season before then and now, the duo and their coach can’t help but think about it.
“We were talking about it; it’s going to be weird seeing everyone leave but us,” Vang said. “It’ll be different.”
For the players, a whole new set of teammates proposed one set of challenges. But for a coach, the logistics of rebuilding a team are a whole different issue.
“I think about it every day, my recruiting is so annoying. Every two years I lose my whole team,” Bruno said. “You really do have the same team for two years . . . In terms of that I think it’s nice, but it’s kind of frustrating to basically lose your whole team. It’s interesting recruiting how its set up for me.”
In two years the Lumberjacks will have a drastically different look. But based on this season’s results, they have a doubles pairing to count on.
“I think we can do big things with the partnership to be honest, based on the success we have had this early in our careers,” Vang said. “I feel like we have grown so much just during this semester, so who knows what could happen.”
The development of their doubles play is not the only focus they have, as each will have a wealth of singles experience at the top of the lineup.
“Our freshman doubles pairing, I think it will be cool to carry that throughout the next three years,” Stone said. “And already playing that No. 2 spot, obviously I’m hoping to step up to that No. 1 spot.”