Iowa State tennis injury creates lineup uncertainty entering Big 12 play


Jen Hao Wong/Iowa State Daily

Freshman Samantha Budai attacks the ball during Iowa State’s 5-2 losses to Drake on March 7 at Ames Racquet and Fitness Center.

Max Dible

Iowa State heads into Big 12 conference play this weekend against Kansas on March 14 and Kansas State on March 16 amidst a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the health of freshman No. 2 singles player Samantha Budai.

The ISU tennis team (8-5, 0-0 Big 12) is coming off a hard-fought loss to Drake in which Budai suffered both hip and groin injuries to complement the shoulder and knee problems that have plagued her for the last month.

ISU coach Armando Espinosa said that while Budai’s status has not yet been officially determined, even the possibility of her absence is enough to ruffle the feathers of his players as they dive headfirst into one of the nation’s strongest tennis conferences.

“I think Big 12 play sneaked up on us a little bit,” Espinosa said. “There’s some uncertainty with the team about Sammy’s situation. They do not know if they will have to step up and play in a different spot or how well they will do, so it is a tough situation in that way.”

The Cyclones dealt with a similar scenario two weeks ago as Budai was sidelined when the team met Bradley and South Dakota. The Cyclones did not miss a beat, winning both meets by a score of 7-0.

However, the competition this time around makes the possibility of playing without Budai more daunting as Kansas comes into Ames ranked 35th in the nation while Kansas State is ranked 52nd.

Espinosa said that despite the caliber of Iowa State’s opponents, he is still optimistic about his team’s prospects.

“We always feel like we can play against Kansas, the same with Kansas State,” Espinosa said.

Espinosa was particularly upbeat about the matchup with Kansas, a team which he says is not quite as tough as its in-state counterpart, Kansas State, despite having a higher ranking.

“I think we match up pretty well [with Kansas] at No. 1. Ksenia [Pronina] has a great chance of winning,” Espinosa said. “Sammy, of course, is going to give us a chance to win regardless of who she plays if she is healthy. Kansas is coming in on a very hot streak. They are playing really well, but we are playing them at home.”

The Cyclones battled the Jayhawks in the conference last year, ultimately falling 4-3. They then met them again in the first round of the Big 12 tournament where the match was called at 4-2 after the Jayhawks clinched the victory.

Junior No. 1 singles player Ksenia Pronina has squared off with Kansas three times in her career, winning in her first try in 2012 but falling in three sets in both her 2013 matches.

Despite her 1-2 record, Pronina said she likes her chances for success against Kansas.

“I am more comfortable playing people I know,” Pronina said. “I know what to expect and have a game plan in mind.”

Pronina had a difficult run in February, posting a 1-5 record in a three-week stretch. Since then, she has won three matches a row and said she feels great heading into conference play.

“I struggled in Florida and lost a little bit of confidence,” Pronina said. “But I definitely feel better now, and I think I am going to have good matches [this weekend].”

Pronina’s success may be even more important to Iowa State than usual if it turns out that Budai is unable to go.

If Budai is absent from the lineup, then Espinosa will bump everyone up a spot on the roster and call on freshman Talisa Merchiers to fill in at the No. 6 singles position.

Merchiers has seen action each of the last two weeks and has tallied a record of 2-1 for the Cyclones in her first three singles matches.

Pronina said no matter what lineup takes the court, the expectations the team holds will remain the same.

“It would be wrong to go into any match expecting to lose. Of course you expect to win,” Pronina said. “But that cannot be the first thing you think about when you play because if you do that, you get tight and do not play your game. You stand in your own way.”

Iowa State faces Kansas at 3 p.m. March 14 and follows that meet with a matchup against Kansas State set to begin at 11 a.m. March 16.