Ball State women’s swim finished fifth overall at MAC Championships

Freshman Alexa Von Holtz swims freestyle with a resistance flipper Feb. 16 during practice at Lewellen Aquatic Center. Von Holtz earned 16 event wins to end her regular season. Andrew Berger, DN
Freshman Alexa Von Holtz swims freestyle with a resistance flipper Feb. 16 during practice at Lewellen Aquatic Center. Von Holtz earned 16 event wins to end her regular season. Andrew Berger, DN

The energy was high in Athens, Ohio as Ball State headed off for the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championships to begin the chase for their first-ever MAC Championship in program history, however, the Cardinals took home fifth place, the same placement they had in last year’s MAC Championships.

Ball State set a number of program achievements and had some hardware being taken home as the Cardinals walked away with medals.

On night one only two events took place, the 200 medley relay and the 800 freestyle. In the 200 medley relay, the Cardinals finished fourth after sophomore Payton Kelly anchored the race and finished in come-from-behind fashion. The finish also put the relay as the third-best in program history (1:40.12).

The Cardinals had another program-setting achievement that night in the 800 freestyle relay with Ball State finishing fifth with a time of 7:24.58. 

Despite there only being two events on the night, the energy inside the Aquatic Center was unmatched, as Ball State finished night one tied for fourth with Buffalo in team points with 58, just behind third place Ohio in the standings who stood with 64.

“It’s ridiculous but as a coach you have butterflies in your stomach,” head coach J. Agnew said. “I just tell the team, those butterflies there to make you swim fast. I don’t know what [those butterflies] do for me but we were excited.”

Ball State had a top-three placer on day two when sophomore Payton Kelly took the silver medal in the 50 freestyle. In a battle with Akron’s Abby Daniel that went the distance, Daniel beat out Kelly by just .13 of a second in the end. Despite the close defeat, the future looks bright for Kelly going into next year in her quest for a MAC title. 

Although Kelly was the only Cardinal to place in the top three on night two, Ball State had multiple finalists in multiple events. In the 500 freestyle, senior Marcella Ribeiro competed in the consolation final and placed 14th overall, while sophomore Callie Tuma competed in the finals and placed seventh overall after placing a program third-best time in prelims in the event (4:53.15). 

Tuma, a sophomore out of  Naperville, Illinois. is coming off of a major knee injury that she swam with for almost two and a half years, and although this season is her first full season healthy, the road to recovery was never easy.

“She’s had her ACL replaced last summer and has been building back all year long,” Agnew said. “She’s so level-headed, and she does what she can every day she can and she just keeps pushing forward.”

Freshman Alexa Von Holtz rounded off the individual performances with her placing in the top ten at tenth (2:02.18) in the 200 Individual Medley in her MAC Championships debut. 

In the diving well on night two, Grace Walker performed exceptionally in the one-meter dive (254.65) and it earned her a spot on the podium with her earning fifth place in the event’s finals. Walker also performed just as well on night three with her taking the top score in the three-meter diving consolation finals and placing ninth overall in the competition.

Day three was marked by a handful of program achievements by Ball State and it all started with Callie Tuma in the 400 IM as she posted the eighth-best time in program history in the event en route to a 14th place finish. Alexa Von Holtz finished two spots above her in the event at 12th.

Payton Kelly added another program record to her resume along with a fourth-place podium finish in the 200-yard freestyle (1:47.61). Making her the program record holder in all of the short-distance freestyle events (50, 100, and 200 freestyles).

“You know she actually has a strong 500,” Agnew joked. “She is just passionate about what she is doing and she has big goals but she backs them up with the work. She’s the one to come in early. Every day on her own and then we go to work and she is a great teammate and she’s training hard and having fun doing what she is doing.”

Even after Kelly’s astonishing feat, the achievements kept on coming with junior Lilia Newkirk setting the fourth-best time in program history in the 100 backstroke (54.83), and Ball State’s relay in the 200 freestyle is the third-best in program history (1:31.38). Senior Laura Wright also got the podium finishing fifth in the 100 breaststroke (1:01.56). 

Despite a day of program achievements, Ball State sat in fifth place in the overall team scores after day two and the Cardinals were looking for a big finish to hopefully push for fourth place in the meet. The finish they got was nothing short of incredible.

“It was just really fun [that we finished that way],” Agnew said. “They were fighting to get a champion, a couple of medalists, it was a great exclamation point  to a hard-fought meet.”

After three days of competition, Ball State finally got its first MAC Champion of the meet with Callie Tuma taking the 1650 freestyle Mid-American Conference crown in which with each lap, was a lap towards redemption.

“For everything she’s been through, what a moment,” Agnew said. “What a moment to take in and celebrate. To watch her walk through that [hardship] for six months, day after day, gritting through practice, having to get out of some practices, get back when she can, to see it come full circle at the end, to throw down the way she did was amazing.”

To add to the championship grab, Ball State earned two more medals, with Payton Kelly claiming the bronze medal, and breaking her own program record in the 100 freestyle (49.03). Laura Wright added to the collection by collecting a bronze medal in the 200 breaststroke.

Although Ball State did not claim the illustrious MAC Championship finishing fifth overall as a team, there is no doubt that the showing is promising for the future of the team going into next season.

“We talked about this as a team,” Agnew said. “We thought last year we fought every break, everything went our way. We were healthy and we were [placed] into fifth place. This year we had a lot of adversity and a lot of obstacles that we had to overcome, and to retain a fifth place spot, it is a lot about the courage and determination of these kids.” 

Ball State swim and dive will be back in action as the men’s teams prepare for the MAC Championships and will travel to Carbondale, Illinois. for their championship events March 6-9.

Contact Dane Massey with comments at or on Twitter @danemassey22.


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