Ball State (22-3, 9-1 MAC) is headed to the NCAA tournament for the third-straight season after defeating the Toledo Rockets (20-4, 10-0 MAC) in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) championship Sunday.
“It’s incredible. I’ve never been in this position before,” freshman Annika Planinsek said after the match. “It feels surreal, I can’t even process it right now. It’s an incredible feeling.”
With the temperature just above the 50-degree threshold, the day started with the match being held outdoors at the Cardinal Creek Tennis Center and the Cardinals came out swinging.
Seniors Jessica Braun and Emily Desai put together a sound performance at third doubles. They won by a score of 6-1 with little resistance. On court one, Senior Amy Kaplan and Planinsek found themselves down 2-0. Having lost the day before to Buffalo by a score of 6-0, they had dropped their last eight games combined. They picked themselves up off the mat and won six of the next seven games to give Ball State the doubles point.
Getting off to such a big start was huge. It silenced a Toledo crowd that had traveled well and was loud the entire weekend. Winning the doubles point was also something that the Cardinals failed to do in the first matchup between the two teams back on Marc..h 26, where they lost 5-2.
With the 1-0 cushion, Ball State had the momentum as singles play started. They won four first sets across all the courts to put pressure on Toledo.
Junior Masha Polishchuk went up against Junior Cassie Alcala of Toledo. This was a matchup between opponents who shared MAC Player of the Year honors and lived up to the billing of a championship match. Polishchuk wasn’t trying to think of the outside noise, though. She was completely locked in on the task at hand.
“Honestly I felt pretty confident in myself,” Polishchuk said. “I just wanted to do the right things. I didn’t think about any awards, I just wanted to do well, that was my goal. She’s (Alacala) a really respectful player, and I was excited 'cause I knew the match would be good.”
After winning the first set, third-year Masha Polishchuk was tied at two in her match before rain forced the match to be moved indoors to the Northwest YMCA. An environmental change wasn’t going to stop Polishchuk from doing what she needed to do.
“I just tried to keep my focus…I also kept in mind that we were going indoors, so I did some strategic changes that helped me in the long run,” Polishchuk said. “There was no wind so I knew I could be even more aggressive. I took advantage of that. I tried to step in, go for my shots, and play fearless.”
Polishchuk claimed a 6-3, 6-3 victory on court 1 to push the Cardinals' lead to 2-0. On court six, second-year Elena Malykh played consistent tennis all day. She won both frames by a score of 6-2. Putting away a team like Toledo isn’t easy. The Cardinals had to earn it, as Toledo fought back. The Rockets captured a win on court two, and on court three, held off three match points to force Kaplan to a third set.
Planinsek lost a second-set tiebreak on court six, to go to a third set. During her break in between sets, she knew she was going to have to clinch the match for the Cardinals again.
“When I lost the second set I went to the bathroom and peaked at the scores,” Planinsek said. “I saw Jess (Braun) was in the third set, and Amy was at 6 all in the second set. I was ‘like I need to do this. It’s me, I have to win this for us.’ I played probably the best tennis I’ve played here so far.”
She breezed through the final set and claimed the match point to clinch the MAC championship.
“I’m so freaking proud of this team. We definitely left a legacy on these courts,” Polishchuk said. “It’s amazing how we bond together, and how we face any obstacles…we just stick together no matter what, and any punch that’s thrown at us, we just take it, and go.”
Ball State rolled with the punches all season, and still achieved its goal. The Cardinals had their head coach placed on administrative leave. The graduate assistant who filled in, Rifanty Kahfinai, couldn’t coach their last four matches of the season due to complications with her visa. Both of their tournament matches had to move indoors halfway through due to inclement weather and came up against the team that had given them their only conference loss of the season in the championship match.
However, they get to go to sleep tonight as conference champions.