The story of Ball State women's tennis’s most recent offseason was one of combating change.
A little more than a month following their first-round loss in the NCAA tournament against Notre Dame last May, the Cardinals said goodbye to eight players. Six graduated at the end of the spring semester, while two chose to take their remaining years of eligibility elsewhere.
With just four players on the team at the end of June, Ball State Director of Athletics Jeff Mitchell hired a new head coach, Sachin Kirtane.
Though Kirtane is new to Ball State, he said he is more than familiar with the coaching scene.
“I feel like I've gone through it all at every level,” Kirtane said. “I have a very good idea and a sense as to what it's going to take to succeed here.”
Kirtane started coaching as a graduate assistant coach with his alma mater, Valdosta State University in 1998. He stayed with the Blaze until 2002 when he accepted a coaching position at Northern Iowa University.
Kirtane spent 10 seasons at Northern Iowa as the women’s tennis head coach, where Kirtane holds the highest winning percentage in program history.
In 2012, he accepted a position at Lindsey Wilson College as the head coach for both the men’s and women’s teams. There, he led his teams to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances which earned him the 2014 Mid-South Women’s Coach of the Year award.
After two years at Lindsey Wilson, Kirtane moved to Mississippi State University as an assistant coach guiding the Bulldogs to three consecutive Southeastern Conference (SEC) championships.
In 2017, he was promoted to head coach, soon leading Mississippi State to multiple NCAA tournament appearances (2017, 2018 and 2021).
After the 2023 season, Kirtane accepted the job at Ball State.
Kirtane brought with him experience and a desire for his player to succeed. Along with this, he brings a former player he coached in the SEC, sophomore transfer Sydney Hrehor.
“He was a big part of me coming here, obviously, and I haven't regretted my decision once,” Hrehor said. “I just think he makes a big difference for my team, and he makes a big difference for me on the court.”
In her lone season at Mississippi State, Hrehor only appeared in 11 matches, five singles and six doubles. In singles, she went 2-3 on the year facing top-ranked teams in the country.
Hrehor said transferring to Ball State has been a great experience and she can’t be more excited to start this season.
“We're going to do very good in conference play. It's never easy in the MAC (Mid-American Conference), but I think we have the ability to win it all again, and I'm super excited to compete,” Hrehor said.
Joining Hrehor as a Cardinal newcomer this season are freshmen Sarah Shahbaz and Isabelle Tanjuatco.
According to Tennis Recruiting Network, Shahbaz is a four-star recruit out of Minnetonka High School in Minnetonka, Minnesota. There she won five state titles, two in singles, one in doubles and second with her team.
Tanjuatco, another four-star recruit, is a Georgia native who graduated from Stafford Murphy Tennis Academy. In her time there, she accumulated an overall record of 26-17.
While change has greatly impacted the team, a few familiar faces remain.
Sophomores Annika Planinsek and Jacqueline Pearsall are returning alongside juniors Elena Malykh and Ella Hazelbaker.
Plannisek played well during her freshman season in the Cardinals’ main lineup, having stand-out performances against Purdue University and Notre Dame. She finished the year with a record of 13-2 in single matches and 10-3 in doubles.
During this season's fall tournaments, Plannisek continued this success, picking up wins in singles and doubles.
Pearsall, on the other hand, has not seen much action on the court due to other players being in front of her in the lineup. However, this preseason, Pearsall saw success and looks to take on a larger role during the regular season.
With four new faces, Malykh has had to adapt to a veteran leadership role on the team quickly.
“It's a very exciting experience,” Malykh said. “I feel I can help out everyone and be supportive and build good chemistry within the team to be like a little family. It’s a great role, and I'm really enjoying it.”
Malykh has always held a starting role with Ball State. During her freshman year, she went on an eight-match win streak from Feb. 25 to March 27, 2022, which helped the Cardinals advance to a MAC Tournament victory. Overall, her play earned her a 13-4 record.
In her sophomore season, she picked up right where she left off, helping Ball State achieve its second MAC Tournament title in a row and third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
Malykh is confident that regardless of the new position the team finds themselves in, they won’t be uncomfortable as alongside Malykh in a similar new-found leadership role is Hazelbaker.
In her first year with Ball State, she only appeared in six matches, winning two out of her four single appearances. The following year, Hazelbaker competed in four matches, one single and three doubles, winning all of them.
Malykh is confident she and Hazelbaker can bring energy, confidence and leadership to the 2024 Cardinals with their combined experience.
“We just want to bring team spirit and be able to energize them and motivate them, not that they really need it,” Malykh said. “Our goal is to do our best, fight and leave everything on the court.”
After being swept by Purdue in their first match of the season Ball State is set to return home and face Cleveland State Saturday, Jan. 27 at 1:30 pm ET.
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