Having high expectations this season, as they have been predicted to win the Mid-American Conference regular season title and championship, Ball State Softball (3-2, 0-0 MAC) was looking to flex early.
Heading down to Florida for the Florida Gulf Coast University Kickoff for the second straight year, depth in the roster proved to be key, powering the Cardinals to wins over LIU Brooklyn, Penn State and FGCU.
"It was a well fought, pretty great first weekend," head coach Megan Ciolli Bartlett said. "We got a Power Five win over Penn State, and Gulf Coast finished No. 39 in the country last season, so that was a good win. We kept our composure, saw a lot of growth and maturity in tough spots."
Alongside a strong veteran presence, the Cardinals saw key performances from an emerging freshman class. Freshman pitcher Sarah Venker was lockdown on the mound for the Cardinals, seeing nine innings, starting off the season 2-0. In the 1-0 win over the Nittany Lions, Venker struck out three and only allowed two hits over the course of the game.
"My first weekend on the mound was so exciting," Venker said. "I made a lot of improvements over the weekend and overall, I'm excited about my start and my team's performance."
Redshirt sophomore pitcher Darcie Huber had a strong return on the mound against FGCU on Sunday, as she would pick up the win giving up two hits and striking out five. At home plate, the hitting was aplenty. Freshman Trinity Eckerty blasted the team's first home run of the season against LIU Brooklyn. Senior Olivia Huffman would blast another one over the fence the following game against Penn State and junior Janae Hogg would homer again against Penn State the following day.
"We're jokingly calling it the shark tank right now," Bartlett said. "We have some tremendous veterans. They've had a lot of experience and have won a lot of games in this conference, but we have a lot of young, talented kids that are pushing. They're making the older kids better and better too."
The Cardinals opened up day one with a dominating win over LIU Brooklyn, 7-4. Seven different players batted in runs for the Cardinals, with Eckerty knocking one out of the park. Venker picked up the win splitting time with Huber and freshman Tieghan Morio. The following matchup, Ball State was blown out by Penn State, 10-2, off of three runs batted in from the Nittany Lions' Tori Dubios. A home run from Huffman would bring in junior Kennedy Wynn, but that would be all from the Cardinals' offensive unit.
Day two saw the Cardinals get revenge over the Nittany Lions in a 1-0 victory. A home run from Hogg would prove to be the difference in the win. Venker picked up the victory, while junior Alyssa Rothwell picked up the save. Rothwell is the Cardinals' all-time leader in saves with 16.
In the final two matchups against host FGCU, the Cardinals would split the games, falling to the Eagles, 4-0 on Saturday and picking up the win, 2-0, on Sunday. Huber picked up her first win of the season and Rothwell would pick up another save tying a Mid-American Conference record. Junior Haley Dominique led off at bat in the second game, heading up three times for two hits.
"We saw really good adjustments this weekend," Bartlett said. "Penn State is probably going to be a middle-of-the-pack Big 10 team this year, and I can promise you things got crazy in that first game...Our hitters found their composure in that first game and that made a great adjustment. As long as the train stays on the track defensively, we're going to be tough to beat."
The team continues their swing down south next weekend as they head to Florida for the Madeira Beach Invitational facing the likes of Belmont, Monmouth, Central Arkansas, Delaware, Quinnipiac and Murray State.
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