Three different head coaches during the season. Multiple injuries. The first home loss in three years. A tall task of defending back-to-back Mid-American Conference (MAC) titles. That’s what the Ball State women’s tennis team (22-4, 9-1 MAC) was faced with during the 2023 season.
Despite all of that, it was one of the most historic seasons in program history, and covering every match for the Ball State Daily News taught me so much about how to deal with this thing called adversity.
I didn’t know what my responsibilities were going to consist of in the Daily News. I just knew that I wanted to work on my writing skills and cover a sport.
During the fall, there were plenty of beats open. I played tennis in high school, and the other sports that interested me were taken. So I went with it, and what followed was a front-row seat to a special team.
To be honest, if you attend any tennis match here at Ball State as a fan, you could probably take a front-row seat too. It’s not a sport that enjoys as much spotlight as the others. That’s what made my experience covering the team so rewarding.
In the fall, the Bethany Moore Invitational lasted two full days. I was out there, and when I talked to the players, I remember them being appreciative, but also surprised that there was someone covering it. I didn’t know any better. This was my first time doing beat coverage for a team.
The fall season was hard to cover because their matches weren’t for the team’s record. There weren’t live updates when they were on the road. The matches during the fall are just big invitationals where teams can test themselves before the spring season starts.
My work was limited in the September and October months, but I knew I wanted to invest myself once 2023 came around. When it did, I was there at the top of the Northwest YMCA, tweeting out live updates of every home match, and calling the head coach for interviews after every away match.
I missed one home match all year because of a conflict with my off-campus job. That came on Feb. 3, against James Madison. It was Ball State’s first home loss since before the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, I was kicking myself for missing this match. I mean when was I going to have the excitement of writing about some adversity that this team was going to have to face? Well, it didn’t take long.
In the middle of a win-streak that would last 11 matches, head coach Max Norris was placed on paid administrative leave. It was so sudden. What surprised me the most about the entire situation was how quietly it happened. At the doubleheader on Feb. 26, Norris wasn’t there, but it hadn’t been announced yet. After confirming through Ball State Athletics, that’s when it was announced. I’m not sure when that would’ve been made public knowledge if someone wasn’t there keeping tabs on the team, because again, of how little coverage this team receives
Graduate Assistant Rifanty Kahfiani took the helm as the interim head coach, and they didn’t miss a beat. The team carried their 11-match win-streak into Toledo on March 26 to face the Rockets, the team the Cardinals beat to win the MAC title the previous year. The Rockets were returning everyone from their 2022 team and were hungry. They defeated Ball State 5-2. When talking to Kahfiani after the season, she described this loss as her favorite moment from the year, because of what the team learned from it. It gave them a clear vision of what they needed to improve upon. They wouldn’t lose for another month and a half.
Later on, Ball State honored seven seniors during their last home match against Eastern Michigan on Apr. 21, and they got one more coaching change as a parting gift. Kahfiani was told 20 minutes before the match that due to issues with her visa, she was not allowed to coach anymore.
It’s devastating news. Seven seniors were being honored for the program that they helped build, which included back-to-back MAC titles and NCAA tournament appearances, and before they could reflect on how much they’ve accomplished, they instead had to wonder what the next few weeks would look like without the voice that’s kept them together all season.
It’s in these moments that you find out how much someone truly cares about their work or profession. This was not just adversity for the players, it was also adversity for Kahfiani. Instead of pouting about it, or going home, or distancing herself from the team, she was there. Every match the rest of the way, she was in the bleachers screaming “Go Ball U…,” as the players on the court roared back “Go! Ball! U!”
Now, if you didn’t keep up with this team during the year, you’re most likely wondering, “who the heck is the coach right now?” I’m glad you asked, because it makes me feel better about asking that question no less than 50 times during the year. Graduate student Livia Lukacs helped out the entire year, as she wasn’t able to play due to an injury. As the staff got thin around tournament time, Alec Robillard came over from a volunteer position for the men’s team to help out the women’s team. The “head coach” for the last 5 matches of the year was Neil Behrman. Behrman is the father of third-year Isabelle Berhman who is on the team, and he had previously coached high school tennis in the area. Even though I was prohibited by Ball State Athletics from ever interviewing Behrman after a match, he did an incredible job of stepping into an impossible situation. I would’ve loved to have talked to him about how he pulled everything off. He led Ball State to a MAC championship and an NCAA tournament appearance. In that MAC tournament, the team wasn’t done with adversity.
Both of their matches started outdoors and then moved indoors. They had to avenge the loss to Toledo earlier in the season in the championship match. They had multiple match points that they let slip away, and yet, still won.
Because of how many twists and turns this team went through during the season, I wanted to be there no matter what. I didn’t want to miss anything. I traveled to their away match against the Miami of Ohio Redhawks on Apr. 23, and to the NCAA tournament match in Ann Arbor on May 5. For both of those matches, I recorded segments for my podcast, “Indiana Drive with Caleb Zuver and Friends,” as a way to document the road trips and the season I had covering this team. Kahfiani was a guest on the podcast after the tournament match against Notre Dame. I asked her, as someone who’s been inside the tumultuous season, how she will remember this team with all of the difficulties they faced.
“It looks like it doesn’t really affect them [the players], but I know, deep down, it’s hard for them,” Kahfiani said. “I’m just really really proud of how they always respond the same way, which is a great way.”
That’s what always amazed me as well. If you were an average fan that showed up to the YMCA (or their only home match they completed outdoors against Bowling Green at the Cardinal Creek Tennis Center), you would’ve never noticed these mishaps happening around them. Their energy was the same. Their focus was the same. Their love for each other was the same.
Whenever I interviewed senior Emma Peeler, she always talked about how tight the team was off the court. She’s seen great teams during her time at Ball State, but it was clear that this team was closer than all of the other one’s she’s played with. Fellow senior Amy Kaplan always echoed the same sentiment and also continued to mention how she cherishes being a leader for such an amazing group. Junior Masha Polishchuk, who won Co-MAC Player of the Year honors, stressed the importance of this team leaving a legacy. After what the seniors had built, and what this season entailed, she wanted the team to leave a lasting impact.
So what is this team’s legacy? Going forward, this program could potentially have a new face at the helm. Monday, the Muncie Star Press reported that Norris was being relieved of his duties after an Internal investigation from Ball State. Considering that, the five returning players are tasked with continuing whatever legacy is being left by this team, and the ones before them. So what is that legacy? From my perspective covering them, that legacy in question is pretty simple. It’s not the three-peat of MAC titles and NCAA tournament appearances. It’s not the outstanding performances by individual players.
Seeing Polishchuk go 20-1 in singles play and seniors Jessica Braun and Emily Desai finish with a 16-3 record in doubles was pretty neat though. Nor is it the amazing wins against Toledo and Miami of Ohio. It’s not even the fact that the seven seniors that are graduating have taken the program to heights it hasn’t seen before. This team’s legacy is that when you’re with a group of people that you come to care for and love deeply, it doesn’t matter what is happening around you. As long as you can focus on controlling what you can control while knowing that the others you are going through the fire with have your back, you can accomplish whatever you wish.
Adversity splits individuals apart in a lot of instances. It can also bring people together. That togetherness reflected off of the courts every single match from this team. It was an honor and a privilege to see it.
Contact Caleb Zuver with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @zuves35.