|A Season to Remember|
Idaho freshman Marianna Petrei arrived on campus on Jan. 5, 10 days before the start of the spring tennis season. The soft-spoken Italian was in a new country, with a new language and a team that had a full fall season to bond and prepare. What happened next turned into one of the best seasons in Idaho women’s tennis history.
Petrei, a native of Udine, Italy, came to the Vandals as the last addition to head coach Mariana Cobra’s 2016 lineup. Idaho, looking to repeat as Big Sky champions, needed to fill a hole at the top of its lineup. Petrei had the desire to come to the United States for college and through different connections Coach Cobra and Petrei began talking.
“I think the first Skype call we had was at like 7:00 a.m., in Italy,” Cobra recalled. “She would not say a word back to me. I was like ‘Ok I do not think this girl is really into this.’ We ended up having a second call and it was much more of a conversation. Back then I was not sure where she was [with her English]. Her tennis skills definitely got me talking to her. The further the conversation went it became more about her personality and wanting to find a place like Idaho.”
Petrei admits that parts of the language barrier were challenging at first.
“Speaking [English] at the beginning when I got here was different,” she recalled. “I was fine understanding my professors and coach. That part I do not think I had that much of a problem. It was more of a struggle to find the right words to say. I think my English is getting better now.”
The defending Big Sky champions had spent the fall bonding as a team. The Vandals played in four tune-up tournaments prior to Petrei joining the team. She had missed out on a number of practices and team meals, putting her behind the proverbial eight ball with her new teammates. By the time she got to Idaho the focus was already on the spring.
“I do not think there are many players that can come in midseason and fit in as well as she did,” Cobra commented. “I remember those first few days she was shy. She came into a team where the seven other girls are were all best friends. She was humble about the situation and that really helped her transition. She ended up fitting in really well."
"The team was already really close," Petrei remembered. "It was kind of hard to get along with everyone at the start. But everyone was really kind and helped make me comfortable."
Right from the start Coach Cobra put Petrei in the No. 1 singles position, a spot she did not relinquish. 10 days after arriving in the United States Petrei was playing the No. 83 player in the country. Her first match at Washington State proved to be just one of three losses all season.
“The one thing I worried about was that she just got here and would she be ok at No. 1?” Cobra recalled. “I knew that with her skill level she would be more than ok. In my mind I knew she was our best player and she did not know any different. If I started her playing at No. 2 and then moved her up to No.1, it would have been a bigger change. We took a gamble she handled the responsibility.”
Petrei twice won 11 straight matches on her way to a 22-3 record. She set the single-season school record with a .880 winning percentage. The rookie dropped just eight sets all season. Petrei did not suffer a loss inside the Big Sky, going 11-0 in the conference season. She won her two completed matches in the Big Sky Tournament, helping the Vandals win its second Big Sky title.
The Big Sky coaches voted her First Team All-Conference and she was named the Big Sky’s Most Valuable Player. She started the season as a virtual unknown and finished ranked No. 18 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s final Mountain Region rankings.
"I never expected to be in the No. 1 position," Petrei said with a laugh. "Then to be voted MVP, it really boosted my confidence. I still have three more years to keep working and improving."
Idaho advanced to its third consecutive NCAA Tournament, drawing No. 8 Pepperdine in the first round. The Waves would sweep the Vandals and Petrei suffered her third loss of the year against Luisa Stefani, the No. 6 singles player in the NCAA. But she did not go down without a fight.
“I think the NCAA Tournament helped her realize how good she can be,” explained Cobra. “She was up and had break-points. That girl is one of the best players in college tennis. For Marianna to realize that it is no different than the tennis she plays every day will really help her going forward.”
“I think [the NCAA Tournament] was a really good experience,” Petrei explained. “I played with a really good girl. I did not have a lot of pressure, because I did not have to win. I just went out there and played for the experience.”
Petrei is spending the summer back home in Italy, gearing up for her first fall at Idaho. In October she will represent the Big Sky at the 2016 Oracle/ITA Masters Tournament in Malibu, Calif. The tournament is billed as the national collegiate championship of the 2016-17 season.
Stay up-to-date on all things Idaho women’s tennis by following the team on Twitter @IdahoWTennis.