When Walla Walla High School basketball standout Mikayla Ferenz began her college recruiting, she said she wanted to find a program near her hometown in Washington state.
It did not take the recruit long to settle on the Idaho womenâ€™s basketball team.
â€œIt was really important to me that it was close to home, because I wanted my parents and siblings to come watch me play,â€ Ferenz said.
After stepping foot on the Moscow campus, Ferenz said she knew she had found the right school.
â€œWhen I visited, I felt like I would fit in very well here,â€ she said. â€œThere was no drama, and all of the team members were very close with one another. It was really what I wanted.â€
The Walla Walla recruit said she was also drawn to the program by the success under head coach Jon Newlee.
â€œI saw that the team had won the WAC two years in a row and had gone to the NCAA Tournament,â€ Ferenz said. â€œThat was always a dream of mine, to play in the NCAA Tournament.â€
Ferenz saw that dream become a reality in March, as she stepped onto the court in Waco, Texas, to face No. 1 seed Baylor in the tournamentâ€™s opening round.
â€œIt was so cool to be there,â€ she said. â€œThe atmosphere was incredible, even though the fans werenâ€™t cheering for us. It was truly something special.â€
The freshman guardâ€™s journey to the NCAA Tournament initially began on the sidelines.
Although Ferenz saw consistent minutes on the hardwood for the Vandals, she spent most of her time on the bench during the first half of the season.
Ferenzâ€™s transition to a key contributor to the Vandal offense began midway through the season, during the teamâ€™s Feb. 6 meeting against Northern Arizona.
Ferenz led the Vandals with 25 points on 9-16 shooting in the 76-59 Idaho victory.
The freshman would then start in seven of the teamâ€™s 11 remaining matchups, including all three of Idahoâ€™s games in the Big Sky postseason tournament.
â€œI did not expect to play much when I first came here,â€ Ferenz said. â€œObviously I hoped for it, but I didnâ€™t think I would get as many opportunities as I did. I think that really helped with my confidence.â€
Ferenz would anchor the team during the Big Sky Tournament, leading all competitors with 67 points to earn tournament MVP honors. The freshman hit 16 treys during conference postseason play and scored 18 points in the teamâ€™s 67-55 victory over Idaho State in the championship.
â€œI was so nervous,â€ she said. â€œI could barely eat before the game. But once I got into the game, I was fine. Usually the more nervous I am, the better I play.â€
Ferenz said she could not describe her emotions after the final buzzer rang in the tournament.
â€œIt was the greatest feeling of my life,â€ she said.
The sharp-shooter said she is excited to develop a further chemistry with freshman teammate Taylor Pierce.
â€œAt first it felt like we were kind of competing for the same spot,â€ she said. â€œBut I feel like we both kind of found our role on the team. And now we just feed off the energy of each other.â€
Ferenz said her favorite memory was the teamâ€™s road trip to compete in the Cancun Challenge. The team faced Duke, Texas State and Iowa State during the trip.
â€œWe were playing against nationally-ranked teams, but that wasnâ€™t the only thing,â€ Ferenz said. â€œWe got to swim with dolphins and we were right on the beach. It was just so fun.â€
The freshman said she was hesitant to face national powerhouse Duke during one the first games of her collegiate career.
â€œOur seniors were really good about telling us that it doesnâ€™t matter who they are and that we can compete with anybody,â€ she said. â€œTo actually play with them and only lose by six gave us a lot of confidence.â€
Ferenz said she hopes to use her experience to help incoming freshman easily adjust to the atmosphere of college basketball.
â€œI want to try and build their confidence, because I know that I didnâ€™t have a lot of confidence coming in,â€ she said. â€œI want to encourage them and show them that I messed up all the time and got yelled at, but you just have to learn how to not take it personally.â€
The freshman said she is sad to see the seniors leave the program after their contributions throughout the years.
â€œI think that our seniors left a great legacy of winning that we really want to continue on,â€ Ferenz said. â€œOur hope is to win more rings and go the NCAA Tournament again.â€
Josh GrissomÂ can be reached atÂ firstname.lastname@example.org or on TwitterÂ @GoshJrissom