Wilstead, Lopez enjoying freshman year at UH
Former Tiger Sharks learning a lot as they look forward to future
Making the transition from the Maui Interscholastic League to the NCAA Division I level has its challenges, but Jessalyn Lopez and Hobbes Wilstead are adjusting to the collegiate student-athlete lifestyle and enjoying their freshmen year.
The former Kihei Charter School tennis standouts noted how much they’ve already grown as they wrap up their first seasons with the University of Hawaii at Manoa men’s and women’s tennis teams.
“There’s been a lot of challenges but also a lot of wins, you could say,” Wilstead said via phone from the airport while traveling with the Rainbow Warriors (4-3) to the Big West Conference tournament at UC Davis. “I’ve learned a lot and I’ve grown a lot and I’m looking forward to next year.”
Although the two-time MIL boys individual champion and state runner-up hasn’t had official playing time yet this season, he won two of the three exhibition matches he had against UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis and UC Riverside in March and April, which “was a big accomplishment for my first college matches.”
“So that was very exciting,” Wilstead said. “A very different experience from junior tennis– a lot of hazing, a lot of yelling and getting in your face and all that, so that was an experience, but good to learn from.”
Lopez, who in 2019 became the first MIL girls singles player to win the state title since Baldwin’s Kari Luna in 1994, had originally committed to play for Southern Utah, but the Thunderbirds’ program was cut over the summer amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had to come here last second but I’m really happy that happened and that everything worked out because I made really good friends here,” she said via phone from Oahu. “All the girls on the team are really nice and my tennis game has definitely improved.”
The freshman is taking a redshirt season because her high school academic credits were not transferred in time to University of Hawaii admissions, which made her ineligible to compete.
“But it’s OK because I think it’s a blessing in disguise,” Lopez said. “This year, there definitely weren’t as many matches as there were in previous years because of COVID, so this just means I have an extra year to participate.”
Even though she is not competing, Lopez trains every day with the Rainbow Wahine, who are 6-7 before heading into the conference tournament this weekend, and has supported her teammates at every home match.
“It’s definitely very different and I’m looking forward to playing next year,” she said. “The level of tennis is, like, insane to me. And some of these girls are from all over the world, like Europe, Bosnia, Japan, so it’s crazy to see them all compete together, and they are all so good and everyone they play is also good, and it’s super competitive, which I love.”
The daily schedule for a D-I student-athlete is also busy and is a lifestyle that takes a bit of time to get used to.
A typical Monday for Wilstead as a UH tennis player pursuing an education in nursing consists of classes all morning until 2 p.m., tennis practices all afternoon, followed by a weight workout or more on-court training like footwork drills, and the occasional COVID-19 test if the team travels that week.
“So basically, school for the first seven hours of the day and athletics for the other five,” he said. “Honestly it’s tough because the last hour of fitness of the day is brutal– the first two months I was cramping almost every day but my body adjusted and now I feel like I could go for a five-hour, five-set tennis match and still be jumping up and down when the match is over.”
Wilstead has been keeping up with schoolwork by managing his time well, making sure that his studies are complete “before I walk out the door for practice.”
“By the time I get home, I shower, I eat and then I fall asleep immediately,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a good schedule, I have a good routine. It’s been good this whole semester.”
Similar to her classmate, one of the big differences for Lopez playing in college compared to high school is the number of hours dedicated to the sport, such as on-court practice, training and weightlifting, which “has definitely improved my game.”
“And there’s definitely a lot of time spent studying in between,” said Lopez, who’s majoring in business management and marketing. “I definitely learned how to push myself more, like it was really hard for me to balance tennis, friends, a pandemic going on and still doing school, so I learned how to balance everything and push myself.”
She noted how she’s “never played this much every day” during her youth tennis career, which “took a toll on my body,” but Lopez continues to get stronger mentally and physically.
Looking ahead, Maui’s Lopez and Wilstead have goals to compete all season long next year and to just improve as a tennis player and student.
“As long as I’m learning, I’m winning in my eyes. If I can take something and learn from it, then I’ve won no matter the outcome,” Wilstead said. “Also, just making the most of every day that I’m out here because I know the days are limited and a lot of people I’ve talked to have said, ‘Wow, yesterday feels like it was freshman year,’ so I think I would really just like to enjoy these for years.”
By the time Lopez steps on the tennis court next season wearing the UH jersey, she hopes to “become more of a leader.”
“I’m definitely more quiet, but I want to speak up more and be someone that the girls can look up to because as a freshman, I look up to them, but a lot of seniors are leaving, so I definitely want to step up in that way,” she said. “Also, I have high expectations for myself, so I’m definitely seeing myself playing in the lineup.”
All in all, the former Tiger Sharks are happy with their decision to attend UH-Manoa, where they get to meet people from around the world, experience new things as a student-athlete, and have some independence.
“I really like UH, I think because I spent some time in Cali during my junior tennis years and I just prefer the aloha of the Hawaiian Islands,” Wilstead said. “A lot of the professors here respect their students, and the respect goes both ways, which I super appreciate. A lot of the people here come from all of the United States which is very cool, it’s very diverse, and a lot of the athletes I found are international, so you meet people from New Zealand, Portugal, Germany, Australia, so a lot of cool different accents and cool stories.”
* Dakota Grossman is at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rainbow Connection is a special series highlighting former MIL student-athletes who are now competing for the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Stories will run periodically this spring in The Maui News.