GREELEY – Nicole Pei’s rapid rise in high school tennis began four years ago as a Chinese foreign-exchange student who was working to improve her game while overcoming the language barrier.
It grew into a distinguished career that stopped one win short of a state title berth on Friday.
“In my first year when I came to join the tennis team I couldn’t understand, ‘what is baseline? What is volley? What is serve?'” said Pei, who won her first two matches at the Class 3A state tournament at Centennial Park on Thursday before bowing out to D’Evelyn’s Rachel Molnar 7-5, 6-4 in the No. 3 singles semifinals Friday. “I had a tough year in my first season.”
The Colorado Springs Christian School student was resilient. While living with her aunt she quickly improved in both serve and speech, rising from doubles to singles in less than a full year. By her sophomore season, she’d earned a spot at the 4A state tournament.
Two years later, her second trip to state came in her final days of high school.
Making the most of it, she ousted Eaton’s Darcie Kaiser and Vanguard’s Idalia Jackson in the first two rounds on Thursday.
The calm and kind senior then added another victory as she rebounded from her semifinals loss to beat Colorado Academy’s Amanda Funk in the playback semifinals on Friday.
She’ll face Holy Family’s Lindsey Bovine in the third-place match Saturday.
“I know when she looks back on this, and her tennis career and this season, she’s going to have a lot of fond memories,” CSCS coach Randy Stephens said. “It’ll be a great memory.”
Pei was undefeated on the year before she ran up against Molnar. The two traded long volleys and momentum in a match that lasted two hours under the hot sun.
Pei led briefly in the final set but couldn’t get enough breaks or late-game winners to force a third set. She told her coach afterward that she'd played her best.
“It’s been a good four years for her,” Stephens said. “I could tell (early) she had the ability to be a good player, like she had all the makings of a good player, but she hadn’t put it together yet. … Every year she bumped it up a notch.”
Pei likely won't play tennis for a college team. She said she's thinking about attending colleges either in the U.S. or Europe.
"I'm still thinking about it," she grinned.
D’Evelyn leads the tournament after two days with 51 points. Colorado Academy is second with 49 and Dawson is third with 44.
CSCS is ninth with 10 points, Vanguard is 10th with nine and Fountain Valley is 12th with three points.