Women’s tennis confident for MAC Tournament despite underdog status

laurafernandez

Heading into last weekend, the women’s tennis team had lost six of its last eight matches and needed a regular season finale win over Northern Illinois to secure a Mid-American Conference Tournament birth.

The Bulls (7-10, 3-4 MAC) got the win and now, despite their struggles this season, has the confidence of knowing they’re only three victories away from the program’s second-ever MAC Championship.

“We’re all so close with all the teams in the tournament,” said head coach Kristen Maines said. “We just have to play well and be really steady. We have to be disciplined on every point and capitalize on every mistake. If they can do that, it’s anyone’s tournament.”

The Bulls will play Ball State (15-5, 4-3 MAC) in the MAC Tournament Quarterfinals in Oxford, Ohio Friday afternoon. Buffalo would play in the semifinal on Saturday if its advances. The MAC Championship game will be held on Sunday.

Heading into the tournament this weekend, both Maines and senior Laura Fernandez said the tournament is “anyone’s game” due to a lack of talent disparity between all the teams in the field.

“We want to win and anything can happen,” Fernandez said. “Everyone’s team level is pretty similar. If we can play the same way we did over the last month or so, I believe we can have success in the tournament.”

Before the win over Northern Illinois (11-9, 2-6 MAC), Fernandez said she was disappointed in how the team’s season had gone. She now says it was more frustration than disappointment.

“I made a mistake,” Fernandez said. “I was frustrated with how my season was going. We lost a ton of seniors off the roster, so it just wasn’t the same as last year. But I’m glad we got to the MAC Tournament and we fought to get there. I couldn’t be more proud of how hard we played.”

The bulk of Buffalo’s roster is made up of underclassmen after the departure of last year’s core. Buffalo has four new players on the roster, three of which experienced playing time right away. The adjustment to Maines’ system and what Maines calls “the transition from just tennis to college tennis,” resulted in the team’s early struggles, she said.

Fernandez said the transition was difficult and going from a winning season to a losing season was ultimately a “learning experience” for her. With the departure of seniors on the team, Fernandez has had to step into larger role, both on the court and as a leader. She found it difficult, as she wasn’t used to a losing season.

Maines said the team’s midseason swoon was evidence it had to work on the game on and off the court.

“We had to work on some things,” Maines said. “The on and off court mental aspect has been huge on our team and we made sure we worked on that. Credit the team for working on focusing and correcting the mental errors on and off the court and in practice and in live action.”

The Bulls finished 3-3 in their final six games of the regular season, including Saturday’s win against Northern Illinois, to make the MAC Tournament.

Despite the team’s 7-10 record this season, Maines said the team has improved a lot and took the necessary steps, which resulted in a conference tournament appearance.

“Our team improved a lot,” Maines said. “This was a really young group and we needed time in order to get to where we want to be. There are things we still want to improve on heading into next season, but the resiliency of this group is great for us heading into the MAC Tournament and for next season.”

In a down season, the Bulls got their younger players experience heading into their sophomore and junior seasons. Freshman Tanja Stojanovska finished the season with a team-leading 20 wins and sophomores Laura Holterbosch and Margarita Kotok both completed seasons of double-digit wins.

Maines said getting valuable experience will help them for the future, including this weekend’s games.

“The biggest thing about having new players is that they’re new in our system,” Maines said. “Being a young team, they’ll have a lot of experience in tennis, but to put them out there and play at the college level is tough. Getting Tanja, Laura and Margarita that experience will help in the long run and hopefully help this weekend in the tournament.”

Buffalo’s quarterfinal match is set for 2 p.m.

Quentin Haynes is a senior sports editor and can be reached at sports@ubspectrum.com