Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce are both thriving at Idaho now, but both said their families have been a large motivating factor along the way. Ferenz said she has always known she wanted to play basketball in college.
“Both my parents are basketball coaches,” Ferenz said. “So it was kind of in the cards for me to play basketball.”
She said it wasn’t just her parents that pushed her to want to be better in basketball.
“I have a twin sister so we used to go head-to-head all the time,” she said. “I think that has kind of been my motivation too since I am really competitive.”
She said for her, basketball has always been a family affair — from playing together at the gym to watching games together at home.
“It is just always a family thing,” Ferenz said. “That is how we bonded.”
Pierce is no stranger to the impact family can have on an athletic career. Pierce said that not only did she want to play in college for herself, but also for her dad.
“He didn’t play at a division one program,” she said. “So I think he wanted it for me just as bad as I wanted it for me and that kind of pushed me to be better.”
Aside from wanting to play for her dad, Pierce said she has always loved the game and the way she can continue to improve.
“You can never be perfect at anything,” she said. “I just want to keep getting better as much as I can, because if you’re better you win more games and if you win more games you have more fun, at least that’s how it works for me.”
As to why they chose to pursue their collegiate careers at Idaho, the reasons could not be more opposite. Ferenz said she was drawn to Idaho because of the proximity to home whereas Pierce said she was looking to get away.
“I really wanted to be coached at home,” Ferenz said. “It is only like two hours from Walla Walla which is really nice.”
Pierce said she wanted to move further away from home in order to have the full college experience.
“It was far away from home, because I am from California and I just kind of wanted to have the whole college experience of not being able to go home for the weekends and seeing if I could be away from my family,” she said.
Regardless of the geographical benefits of Idaho for both athletes, they both agreed on the importance of the team chemistry. Ferenz and Pierce said the family dynamic and close relationships of the team was a big selling point.
“The biggest thing for me was to see how close the girls were with each other,” Pierce said. “You want to be close with all of them so you can get through those tough days and you know the coaches treat you like you’re their own kid, and that was really important to me since obviously my parents aren’t going to be here all the time.”
While the women are known for their individual talents, recently their names have become popular in comparison to a popular NBA duo. After their freshman success, the “splash sisters” nickname began to follow Ferenz and Pierce around. Pierce said it started in their freshman year when someone saw them walking together and called them out as the splash sisters. Though it started as a joke, Pierce said the media quickly picked it up.
“Next thing we knew it was on Sports Center during the NCAA tournament and we were like, ‘Oh my god what have we done,’” she said. “Now everyone calls us it and there is nothing we can really do about it.”
Ferenz said while it started as a joke, it has become a popular term with the media that the team has just accepted.
“We kind of just embrace it now,” she said of the nickname. “It is meant as a compliment but like, it is a little weird.”
They are seen as a dynamic duo now, but it hasn’t always been that way. Ferenz said when they both started out, it felt like a competition between the two of them due to their extensive similarities in playing style.
“At the beginning it was a little tough,” Ferenz said. “It felt like we were competing, we are really similar, but as the season went on we kind of grew into our own players and now we like both have our defined roles and now it is even better because we can play off of each other.”
Pierce echoed the sentiments, saying with their similarities it was easy to assume they were each other’s competition. She said it took some time to figure out that the plan was not for them to play against each other but instead to play with each other.
“Once we figured that out and started playing with each other, we play really good off of each other so I think it shows,” she said.
Their likenesses in ability has not only allowed them to be better players but also helped them figure out how to pick the other up. Pierce said because they play the same way, she is able to figure out how to motivate her teammate.
“You know what it is like to go through a shooting slump,” she said. “Some people try to motivate you in a weird way but like, I know what I need to be motivated and I know what she needs to be motivated. You don’t need to get in her face, you just need to give her a little pat on the back and say, ‘You got it’.”
Although they have fit into the Idaho program seamlessly, neither athlete expected the success they found so quickly. Ferenz said she was surprised by the support from both of the coaches and the upperclassmen in her freshman year.
“I didn’t expect to play as much as I did or to have so many plays run for us,” she said of her first year on the team. “Just the confidence that our teammates had and our coaches had was really surprising.”
The team was never separated or focused on class standing. Both girls said they were supported by the whole team and given a large role.
“The coaches made it clear at the beginning of the year that anybody can prove that they can play in preseason,” she said. “And that is what we did. We went out there and competed but once we got that far and started to get playing time, the upper classmen really embraced that and helped us learn and grow.”
Ferenz said she was recently encouraged to step up and shoot more.
“After the first couple games coach got into me about not shooting enough,” she said. “That was pretty surprising just because I was a freshman I didn’t think I was supposed to be shooting.”
Pierce said the importance of leadership has been emphasized by the coaches.
“This year we had Karlee (Wilson) on the team and she is really big and energetic so again we just kind of got to sit back, but she graduated so it’s our turn to kind of take on those roles,” Pierce said. “After next year we only got one more and then we are gone and the girls we taught have to take what we gave them.”
Sanford said both athletes have their strength and now it’s a matter of converting those strengths into strong leadership skills. She said Pierce came out of her shell in her time at Idaho and became one of the players with the most character, both on and off the court. Despite her easy-going personality, Sanford said she has a strong work ethic and can lead by example.
“Her leadership role is going to be huge,” she said. “Especially with the freshman we bring in to kind of mentor for them. I think she is going to be a huge leader just because, you know, the better players tend to be the leaders who everyone is looking to.”
Sanford says Ferenz has an equally strong work ethic, but tends to be more quiet.
“Nobody beats her work ethic,” Sanford said. “She is always in the best shape, she is always working hard every drill so what we are working on with her is being a more vocal leader, you know she needs to talk more and really be more of a voice on the floor.”
Ferenz and Pierce were both drawn to Idaho because of the apparent family chemistry within the team, and now they are doing their part to contribute to the family strength. Ferenz said her hope for the future is to get back to the NCAA tournament, not just for herself but for her teammates as well.
“I know it was really special for us that we helped get our seniors there,” Ferenz said. “I think it is just helping the younger kids develop. I think it is just leaving a legacy like our seniors left for us.”
Meredith Spelbring can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org