Ball State earns first win of MAC campaign over Northern Illinois

Ball State University Creative Services, photo courtesy
Ball State University Creative Services, photo courtesy

After Ball State men’s tennis dropped their opening Mid-American Conference (MAC) matchup against Western Michigan Friday, head coach Bill Richards had one message for his team:

“How you come back from a loss really defines you as a player, defines you as a coach, defines you as a team,” Richards said.

Sunday, the Cardinals (9-6, 1-2 MAC) responded with a 5-2 win over the Northern Illinois Huskies (11-4, 3-1 MAC). Coming in, the team knew what was at stake after their 0-2 start. 

“We knew we were getting backed into a corner as far as the conference race is concerned,” Richards said. “We knew that if we lost we’d be digging a hole that was even deeper, and so it was a matter of staying positive and believing in yourself.”

Ball State had a sense of urgency surrounding as soon as the match got started. The energy during the doubles point from the Cardinals was at a high level. Even though they couldn’t quite claim the point with close losses on courts two and three, the team carried that energy level into the singles matches. 

Fourth-year Eli Herran got the winning started with a 6-0, 6-2 win in fourth singles. It took three sets for fourth-year Vince Orlando to down the Huskies’ third-year Cheng En Tsai in second singles, while second-year Nathaniel Webster ground out a close match on the first court, winning 7-6 (7-2), 6-4. 

That gave Ball State three points, and they needed one more match to go their way. Fifth-year Danilo Kovacevic has had an up-and-down year up to this point but has a ton of college tennis experience. It came through in a big way Sunday. 

After winning his first set 6-4, he dropped his second set 7-5. Third-year Mikael Vollbach of the Huskies found himself up 3-0 in the third set, but Kovacevic battled back to eventually even things at 6-6, and force a tiebreak. In the tiebreak, Kovacevic found himself down 6-3. With Vollbach needing just one more point, Kovacevic had to dig deep.

“I was just like, ‘OK next point. Just play it. Play your game,” Kovacevic said. “Force him to hit a good shot, or you hit a good shot. That was my mentality.” 

Kovacevic earned both of his points on his serve, and then found a way to, as he described it,  “scrape” together a point to tie it at 6-6. 

“He [Vollbach] got upset, and then he just gave me two points after, he just got in his own head,” Kovacevic said.

Those last two points going Kovacevic’s way ended up being what the Cardinals needed to get their fourth point and win the match.

Third-year Sajin Smith also tacked on another three-set win for Ball State, as he won 6-7, 6-4, 6-1. Taking five of the six singles courts was not something coach Richards expected. He knew it would be a close match,  especially after the doubles point, but his players were prepared. 

“I told everybody after the doubles point, ‘Be prepared to be the last match on. Be prepared for the match coming down to you,’” Richards said. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. We took care of business.”

The Cardinals have a big weekend ahead and will try to take two matches when they travel to New York for matches against Binghamton and Buffalo. They’ve put themselves in a position to compete going forward. Wherever they play, the energy level needs to stay the same as it did today.

“We are going to be away, we haven’t had an away match in a while,” Kovacevic said. “We got to be ready for them to be loud, we have to be loud back.”

Ball State gets their road trip started Friday versus Binghamton, with first serve scheduled for 1 p.m. 

Contact Caleb Zuver with comments at or on Twitter @zuves35.