There are still two matches left in the regular season, but the Cardinals can already say they are going to the NCAA Tournament.
Because there is no Mid-American Conference Tournament this season, Ball State Women's Tennis clinched a berth to the NCAA Tournament, winning the MAC Regular Season Championship.
“It's been such a tough year because our league is so strong,” head coach Max Norris said. “With a regular-season deciding the champion, it was so hard to know what amount of wins would get us a championship. I'm so impressed by my team’s and assistant coach Bella’s focus and attitude. I’m proud of them.”
Going into the weekend’s slate of conference matches, the Cardinals were on a 19-match win streak and 10-0 in the MAC. After the two victories over Miami (Ohio) (9-12, 3-9 MAC) and Western Michigan (14-6, 6-6 MAC), the Cardinals won the MAC regular-season championship outright for the first time since 2017.
Last season, the Cardinals were on track to record one of their best seasons in school history, maintaining a 10-2 overall record before COVID-19 concerns canceled the season.
The Cardinals proved last season was not a fluke, with their record currently standing at 21-2 (12-0 MAC).
“We had a newer team [last season],” Norris said. “I think a lot of the newer players were well aware of some of the things our program had achieved, and they were very excited to make their own mark. This season, the players did a tremendous job knowing we’re pretty good but also still having a lot to prove.”
In Friday’s match against the RedHawks, Ball State was looking to earn at least a share of the conference championship, and they did with a close 4-3 victory.
“After we beat Buffalo,” Norris said, “I told them that we’ve kind of gone through this gauntlet of not knowing what was on the horizon. Going into Friday’s match, we knew for a fact one win gets us a share of the championship, so you could see some nerves because Miami didn’t have anything to play for. I think we needed that experience for a couple people to play with nerves and manage that.”
In doubles, sophomore Jessica Braun and freshman Mariya Polishchuk (6-3) and senior Victoria Sec and junior Livia Lukacs (6-4) won their respective matches on courts three and two to earn the first point of the match.
“The doubles point has been extremely important because, in a league as balanced as ours, there are very few teams that are winning four out of six singles,” Norris said. “And I would say 20 percent of the matches has a team won five out of six singles, so it definitely places a big importance on the doubles.”
In singles, Lukacs (6-0, 6-1) on court six and Polishchuk (6-1, 6-3) on court three increased the lead to 3-0 after winning their matches, but the 8-12 (2-9 MAC) RedHawks weren’t ready to go away quite yet.
Miami’s Makenzie Myers (6-2, 6-1) and Brindtha Ramasamy (6-2, 6-4) cut Ball State’s lead to one after pulling off straight-set victories of their own over graduate student Rebecca Herrington and sophomore Emma Peeler.
At No. 4 singles, sophomore Amy Kaplan clinched the victory and a share of the MAC championship for her team in her 6-3, 7-5 win over Miami’s Milana Lysova.
“When [Kaplan] was playing, I think she was starting to put two and two together that what was going on in her match might do it,” Norris said. “She made some mistakes and played in a way that was because of the pressure, but I also think that at this time of year, that's extremely normal because the nerves are higher.”
Sunday’s 6-1 victory over Western Michigan was one for the record books, with the Cardinals locking up a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in history, as well as breaking the conference record for most regular-season victories with 12.
In doubles, Polishchuk and Braun (6-2) and Lukacs and Sec (6-1) put the Cardinals on the board early with the match’s first point.
Lukacs and Sec are 11-0 as a team and are ranked 90th nationally. Since being paired up back on Feb. 28, the Cardinals have only lost one doubles point.
“About midway through the season, we put them together because we thought it would be a good pairing in the bare minimum for energy, as well as their similar game styles,” Norris said. “They’re both going to get pumped up when they play and like to be at the net. They have their flaws obviously but when they're out there most of the time, they're extremely pumped up and just have positive energy.”
In singles, it was all Ball State, with five of the points going in favor of the Cardinals, including the championship-winning point at No. 1 singles from Peeler.
Peeler, who had won the first set 6-0, came back from being down 1-4 in the second set by winning the following five points to secure a 6-4 victory and the title.
The Cardinals will close out the regular season next weekend when they host Northern Illinois (14-13, 6-6 MAC) on Friday before traveling to Toledo (13-7, 9-3 MAC) on Sunday. Both matches are slated to begin at 1 p.m.
“We're excited to keep moving on to the next one,” Norris said. “Nothing has been given to us and I feel like this team has really earned it. We’re just going to keep taking it a day at a time no matter what.”