TENNIS_WIN

ISU women's tennis earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament Monday set to face off against No. 13 seed Southern California. The Redbirds finished the 2018-19 season 20-6, 9-0 MVC, winning the Missouri Valley Conference championship Sunday and dancing for the first time since 2005.

Nervously waiting for its name to be called in the NCAA Women's Tennis Tournament selection show Monday night, Illinois State ultimately had nothing to be worried about.

With every passing team earning a selection, the Redbirds restlessly sat in Hancock Stadium's third-floor suite, wondering when their name would be called as the men's tennis team surrounded and similarly sighed with impatience.

Fortunately, the wait lasted only 15 minutes.

For the first time since 2005, the Redbirds' successful 20-6 season culminated with the team dancing its way into the NCAA Tournament, earning a bid to play host No. 13-seeded Southern California in Los Angeles Saturday.

Touting a perfect Missouri Valley Conference record at 9-0, back-to-back MVC Player of the Year Veronika Golanova, MVC Coach of the Year Maja Kovacek and most importantly winning the MVC Tournament Sunday, the Redbirds’ road is happily far from over.

Ending its 2018-19 season strong on a nine-game win streak, ISU head coach Maja Kovacek has seen this success in the cards for quite some time.

"Spring break trip we had a match against Riverside ... We lost by three and we all had a really tough conversation after that," Kovacek said. "I wasn’t sure how they were going to react the next day, but they came back with such amazing energy, came back together even stronger to win that next match. That’s when I really thought they had something special.”

Feeling it all from the Redbirds' MVC Championship win, junior Natalia Bravo fought through pain and adversity in her match to clinch Sunday night's contest over No. 1-ranked Stony Brook.

Still registering her emotions along with the rest of the team, Bravo was "pumped" to say the least.

“When I saw everyone there looking at me, I just knew I had to finish the match," Bravo said of her conference-winning set. "I was nervous but that pumped me. I was cramping in the third set and I was so beaten up, but I felt like I owed that win to the team. I’ve given it my all.”

“It was super overwhelming,” she continued. “We didn’t think we were that good to win the conference championship and it’s been 12 years since it’s happened so we were all super excited.”

Now on to face USC, both Bravo and Kovacek echoed the team's mantra of staying within themselves, focusing on playing their game, their way.

“We can keep getting better, playing against a big team like USC; I think they’ll definitely be more aggressive and I think they’ll have better tactics that we’ve seen," Bravo said. "We just need to play our game and not let our nerves get the best of us.”

“Our goal is going to be to play our tennis like we do every day,” Kovacek added. “It’s been a long time [coming], but that process has meant a lot.

When I came here, there was this big tradition of success and that was my goal to build that back up. The kids felt the pressure sometimes and they felt [the] magnitude of that, but I think that just gave them more motivation. I’m really proud of them.”

As Redbird tennis strives to bring home tournament triumph, Kovacek shows nothing but gratitude toward the team days before heading to the west coast.

"There's a lot of pride on my end," she said. "I know what these kids have been through, I know what our seniors have been through the past four years and kind of slowly building things one step at a time. We had these high goals set at the beginning of the year and we knew we could do it. We just had to put our heads down and work and I’m just so happy for them. They did an incredible job.”

JONATHAN BARLAS is Sports Editor for The Vidette. He can be reached at jgbarla@ilstu.edu. Follow him on Twitter @janveselybarlas


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