Ball State Women’s Tennis had to earn every point that they could get Sunday.
The Cardinals (20-3, 9-1 MAC) faced off against the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks (11-13, 5-5 MAC) in the last match of the 2023 regular season.
Coming in, both teams had already clinched spots in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament. With a win, the Redhawks were hoping to claim the No. 3 seed and play the Cardinals again in the first round of the tournament. The Cardinals were hoping to finish off an impressive season with just one conference loss. Sunday’s match was an opportunity for both teams to test themselves against one another.
Ball State was going to have to do it without senior Amy Kaplan, who is recovering from a knee injury she suffered Friday in the win against Eastern Michigan. Stepping in for the injured Kaplan was fellow senior Emma Peeler. She replaced Kaplan in the one doubles and two singles spots. Even though Peeler hasn’t played much doubles this year, her past experience helped her stay ready.
“It comes a lot from having to prepare yourself, and knowing that I’ve done this the last three years,” Peeler said. “I can hop out there when the team needs me. I wasn’t trying to think too hard about it.”
Peeler played with freshman Annika Planinsek, and together, they won their doubles match 6-4.
“Me and Emma, in the fall we played some doubles, and when we practice, we practice with different people,” Planinsek said. “I think we are both good players, so it wasn’t hard getting into the match mindset. We know what we have to do.”
The other win on the doubles courts came from junior Masha Polishchuk and graduate student Allison Mulville on court two, as they won 7-5 to get the day started for the Cardinals.
As singles play started out with Ball State quickly extending their lead to 3-0. Polishchuk had to grind out a first set win on court one, but wasted no time in the second set against graduate student Laura Rico, who won the 2021 MAC player of the year. She won 6-4, 6-0. Peeler filled Kaplan’s shoes in a big way on court two, as she won 6-3, 6-2.
It seemed as though the Cardinals had all the momentum, but Miami wasn’t going to go away quietly. The Redhawks lost 4-3 against the top-seeded Toledo Rockets earlier this year. They also had a pair of 4-3 losses against the Buffalo Bulls, who will be the three seed in the MAC tournament. They’ve played well against the conference's top teams, and Sunday was no different.
Miami responded with wins on courts three and six, to bring the match to a score of 3-2. The only chances for Ball State to win were on court four with freshman Annika Planinsek, and on court five with sophomore Elena Malykh. Malykh struggled in her first set, but rebounded in the second to force a decisive third set. She was down to match point at a score of 5-4, but found a way to break serve. Despite a valiant effort, Malykh couldn’t put it together in the final two games, and lost by a score of 6-1, 3-6, 7-5.
That left the match up to Planinsek. She won the first set, but lost an extremely close tiebreaker in the second set. After having the match slip away in that tiebreak, she had to regain her positive mentality.
“I just said I need to do this. I will give it my all even if I fall down to the ground,” Planinsek said. “Lena [Malykh] was grinding the third set, so I was like ‘it’s me, I have to do it. I’m not giving her any points, I’m just going to stay out here win or lose.’”
With all of the Riverside Athletic Club watching, Planinsek jumped out to a 5-2 lead. Her opponent, Sophomore Emilia Valentinsson, held serve to bring it to 5-3. Planinsek went up 40-15, but let two match points slip away to get the score back to 40-40. That was when Planinsek shut the door, as Valentinsson hit a ball that was just a tad long. It gave the Cardinals a 4-3 win.
Planinsek has come a long way since the start of the season. She was also the last match on in their 4-3 loss to James Madison on Feb. 3, where she came up just short. Sunday was a different story. Planinsek says she loves being the last match on.
“It feels incredible. I know it can be a lot of pressure because it’s just you and you have to win, but I enjoy it.” Planinsek said. “I enjoy winning the point and looking at my teammates [cheering] for me, and I just knew they had my back whatever happened, so I just gave it my all.”
That togetherness that Planinsek speaks of has never wavered throughout a season that has seen them have multiple coaches, as graduate assistant Rifanty Kahfiani remained unable to coach today due to an issue with her visa. They’re a veteran group that is player-led. That’s what’s carried them through this season, and that is what’s going to carry them through the post-season.
“I think that with every single match we’ve gotten better and we’ve taken positives away from everything,” Peeler said. “I think [the team’s success] also has to do with how united we are as a group on and off the court. We’re really close, so that has a ton to do with it.”
The MAC Tournament has many storylines as Miami has every chance to compete with Toledo and Ball State will aim for its third MAC title in as many years. The Cardinals play the Buffalo Bulls Saturday, with first serve scheduled for 2 p.m. in Muncie.