Austin Smith graduated from Ball State University on Saturday and has a job lined up at Lumident dental lab in Indianapolis.
But for at least another week, the real world will have to wait.
Smith and his Ball State men’s tennis teammates have a first-round NCAA Tournament date at 5 p.m. Friday at 12th-ranked Illinois. The Cardinals qualified by winning the Mid-American Conference Tournament, with Smith earning Most Outstanding Player honors.
“It’s been an awesome experience to be able to go out senior year winning the conference tournament,” said Smith, a 2010 Columbus North graduate. “I would say the (MAC) Tournament is the main focus of our season and making the NCAA Tournament, so I’d say the past eight months of grinding practice paid off.”
Three years ago, Smith was a freshman on the Ball State team that last made the NCAA tourney. But an ankle injury suffered in his first collegiate match in the fall of that year, slowed him to the point where he couldn’t play in the postseason.
With Smith back in the lineup, the Cardinals missed out on making the NCAA the past two years, but did win the MAC regular-season title last year. That allowed Ball State to host this year’s conference tournament.
“We finished (this) regular season strong,” Smith said. “We had good momentum going into the tournament. Also, we had the home-field advantage with the tournament being in Muncie.”
The third-seeded Cardinals upset No. 2-seed Toledo in the semifinals April 25, while No. 4 seed Buffalo upset top-seeded Northern Illinois in the other semi. Ball State then edged Buffalo 4-3 in the final April 26, earning the Cardinals an automatic berth to the NCAA.
Smith, who was playing No. 4 singles, was the first player off the court in the singles matches.
“I knew that I was a senior and needed to get off the court first, kind of get my team that motivation to help them pull through the matches,” said Smith, the Cardinals’ lone senior.
“The last couple of months, he’s carried our team,” Ball State coach Bill Richards said. “He was on a mission to carry us into the NCAA Tournament. He put us on his back and rode us through the last weekend. He was our emotional leader, and I’m proud of the way he’s finished his career. To finish strong in the regular season and get us into the tournament, he’s really been our go-to guy.”
Smith also plays No. 1 doubles for the Cardinals and is 8-7 at that spot. He has also played No. 2 and No. 3 doubles at times, going 3-2 and 1-2, respectively, and was 1-4 in tournaments for an overall 13-15 doubles record.
In singles, Smith has gone 1-0 at No. 2, 5-4 at No. 3, 9-6 at No. 4 and 2-5 in tournaments for an overall 17-15 mark.
“He’s had a great year,” Richards said. “His first year, as a freshman, he had some injury problems and contributed. Since then, he’s been a mainstay for us in singles, and this year, he’s been a regular for us in doubles.
“He is a hard-nosed fighter, an incredible competitor,” he said. “He’s a good player, but his tenacity and toughness. He kind of plays tennis like a linebacker plays football. He’s felt a huge responsibility as our only senior.”
Smith, who graduated with a degree in biology and is on the alternate list for a spot in Indiana University’s dental school, doesn’t think his tennis career will be completely over after Ball State is eliminated from the NCAA tourney. He might play doubles with former North standout Chase Harris in the city tournament this summer.
Teaching tennis could also be in Smith’s future. And he’ll have more time to watch the matches of his sisters, Allie, a sophomore at University of Indianapolis, and Aubrey, a freshman and the No. 1 singles player at North.
“With both of my sisters still playing tennis, I’ll still hit with them and go to their matches, so I’ll definitely be around tennis for awhile,” Austin Smith said.
He’ll be around college tennis at least another three days. The Cardinals will be looking to avenge a 4-0 loss to Illinois on March 23.
“I think we have a shot,” Austin Smith said. “Illinois is a team we play every year during the season, and we match up pretty well against them. Illinois has a lot of Americans on their team from the Midwest that our guys are familiar with.
“When it comes down to these big-time matches, anything can happen,” he said. “I would say we’re on a team high right now after winning the conference tournament.”
Which is why Smith will remember his college playing days with fondness.
“I couldn’t ask to go out a better way,” he said.