Three different roads converged for three different players. One was a record breaking 3-point shooter who wanted to lace up for one more season. One was a quiet center from Louisville who grew beyond his imagination. One was a transfer from Northern Kentucky who played with his heart on his sleeve.
From as little as one season to as many as 132 games, these three players have impacted and been impacted by the Ball State and Muncie communities in their time as athletes and students. When the final buzzer sounds, these are their final remarks in dawning the cardinal and white.
A different perspective
Austin Nehls was a big fish in a small pond in his time at Central Connecticut State. He was the Blue Devils' go-to guy from deep, knocking down more than 67 3-point shots and racking up more than 1,000 points in his four years in New Britain.
While Nehls was a force for Central Connecticut, he didn’t really feel like he played in a traditional college town. With the school being so close to Hartford, Connecticut, the focus wasn’t just specifically the Blue Devils. In Muncie, Nehls said it has been different from what he came from.
“Muncie is all Ball State, and it’s really cool to be in that atmosphere,” Nehls said. “At Central Connecticut State, we maybe had 1,000 people at our games. Here we got four times that. It’s been really cool to play in front of a wider audience.”
In making the switch from a smaller conference like the Northeast Conference to the Mid-American Conference, a bigger stage has been set from every home and road game he has played. From 5,000 in Muncie to 15,000 at Purdue, Nehls said he is taking it all in.
“That Purdue game was sold out, and they were top 25 in the country,” Nehls said. “I had never played a ranked team, and it was a true road game. Every arena in the MAC is the arena. Most arenas I played at didn’t have the jumbotrons and usually had portable seating. This is something I’ve wanted to do, and I’ve been enjoying it.”
In running this victory lap after an impressive showing at his past school, some might think Nehls' accomplishments might get to his head. However, head coach James Whitford said Nehls is the exact opposite.
“He’s only been here for a year, but when I hear his name I think of a great teammate,” Whitford said. “He didn’t come to Ball State saying what can Ball State do for me. He came to Ball State saying what he could do for Ball State.”
Whenever Nehls comes off the bench, even if it’s for a few seconds, Whitford said he takes advantage of his time. Only averaging about 13 minutes per game, he did what he does best in draining 18 shots from deep, leading to his 72 points on the season.
“It’s really easy for that guy at the end of the bench to say, ‘Well I’ve scored 1,000 points,’ and not bring a great attitude every day,” Whitford said. “However, Austin has given his best for five minutes or 20 minutes. He’s all in.”
That attitude has given Nehls memories that will last a lifetime. The guard hit a game-tying 3-point shot at the buzzer in overtime against Eastern Michigan on March 5, igniting Worthen Arena. The game before, he had only played 11 minutes.
“Maybe three or four games before, I hadn’t even played,” Nehls said. “We had an injury and I started to play more. The fact that it was even in my hands to shoot it at the end surprises me, but I was wide open. I made the shot, and it was a great feeling.”
As Nehls heads onto the court for the final time in his college career, he is grateful for the opportunity he has had for one last ride.
“I’m thankful for all the support we’ve gotten this season,” Nehls said. “It’s been a great one year, and I wish I honestly could’ve been here longer. It was a good ride.”
Coming out of his shell
He was young and shy, but he had talent others did not see. That is how Whitford describes the first time Trey Moses walked onto the court in the summer of 2015.
“He was 17 when he got to college,” Whitford said. “He was a young kid who wasn’t in great shape, but he was a great player. He had great hands and great feet which really stood out.”
Four years later, the center has made a major impact not just on the court, but in the Muncie community. As a figure kids look up to, Moses said he never expected to be in this role.
“I really never imagined to be this person that people look up to,” Moses said. “I’m from Louisville, and I follow Louisville basketball and football closely. When I was younger, I looked up to those guys and wanted to be them one day. Ball State isn’t as big as Louisville, but I’m just looked at as one of those guys when I was younger.”
As an underclassmen, Moses looked up to former teammates Franko House and Bo Calhoun. Both have taken routes that Moses would like to follow in playing basketball overseas, and venturing into a teaching career.
“I still talk to Franko quite it bit,” Moses said. “He’s a guy who played overseas and he’s a guy that I looked to for advice. I keep up with Bo more than he thinks, but he’s a teacher now. Both guys are doing things I look to do eventually.
Moses’ impact in the community has resonated with the entire team. On senior night, fans young and old were taking photos with him and congratulating him on Twitter. Alongside his parents, two individuals with Down syndrome Trey has created a close bond with accompanied him on the court.
“His work with the community reflects on us well, but more importantly it impacts the lives of a lot of other people,” Whitford said. “There are a lot of other people who have been touched by Trey. The fun thing to think about with that is how many lives got to touch and feel him and people who improved their quality of life from the things he did.”
In these interactions, whether it’s reading to a group of elementary school kids or teaching a preschool class for his major focus in child development, Moses said he is grateful for every experience he has had.
“Everything that has happened to me here at Ball State has made me a stronger person and more of a leader,” Moses said. “It’s helped me reach my full potential, and I know I have a ways to go, but I’m forever thankful for every person that has come in contact with me.”
As someone who has shed the persona of a quiet teenager, Whitford looks back at how much he has grown and how prepared he is for the world.
“He’s really matured as a person,” Whitford said. “He’s really equipped to handle the world. Like a lot of 17-year-olds that come to college, he wasn’t mentally ready when he got here. He’s going to do well when he leaves us.”
For Trey, it’s the fans and the support that make it worthwhile. The impact this community has left on him will stick with him for a long time.
“I know this year hasn’t been the year that we wanted, but the fans, the students and my friends have all stayed faithful to us,” Moses said. “I know we’re all thankful for that. I can’t thank them enough.”
If you jump back to the Cardinals’ 2015 season and look for a game against Northern Kentucky, you won’t find it.
In a game Whitford described as a “secret scrimmage", the Cardinals were rolled by a 230-pound, 6-foot-3-inch freshman guard from nearby Kokomo, Indiana. From that point on, Whitford knew he wanted him on his team, and by luck, the player was looking for a new home.
“As soon as we found out he was leaving, we had a scholarship open up,” Whitford said. “We called right away and went through the recruiting process. We knew that we wanted him.”
It didn’t take long for Tayler Persons to feel at home in Muncie. From the people to the area code, he said the blue-collar feel of Muncie and Kokomo has been a driving factor to his growth.
“It’s just the people here,” Persons said. “They’re yelling and screaming, which might get annoying sometimes, but they care, and that’s important. That’s how it was like growing up. I grew up in a tough family, and the community is the same way.”
The closeness of the community has been something Persons has valued, something he thought a larger school may not have offered. With his hometown and college town holding similar populations, the passion from the community is something Persons hasn’t played without.
“I talk to everyone I can,” Persons said. “Every person that tells me, ‘Good job,’ or to, ‘Keep my head up,’ makes me happy. Life’s not just about winning and losing. It’s about the interactions you have with people and the time you take to communicate with them.”
On the court, Persons has taken a role of leadership for the Cardinals. His passion and fire for the game have pushed him to succeed. Whitford said his ability to control that passion has made him an even stronger player.
“His passions have been his greatest strength and sometimes his greatest weakness,” Whitford said. “You can’t lead if no one follows. He’s done a better job of being able to manage them and communicate in better ways and still play with the fire of who he is.”
That fire has driven him to long lasting memories not just in his life, but in Ball State basketball history. Persons will be remembered as the guy who hit the game-winning three against then No. 9 Notre Dame on Dec. 6, 2017, to give the Cardinals their first win against a ranked opponent in 16 years.
“It’s just a blessing for my teammates to have confidence in me to take that shot,” Persons said. “I’ll never forget those moments, but my career is far from over. I still want to make even more of those moments.”
As his time as Cardinal has reached its final days, Persons does not view Ball State as the school he goes to or the team he plays for. He thinks of it as home. A place where he is with his family, where he has created long lasting relationships.
“My coaches have been like uncles to me, and some of my best friends live in Muncie who are family,” Persons said. “I have this tight knit group of friends here, and it’s just home to me.”
For the legacy that Persons wants to leave as a Cardinal, he doesn’t want it to be about the records. He doesn’t want it to be about the big shots. He wants to inspire and bring joy to those who watched him play the game that he loves so much.
“Life isn’t just about basketball but about the interactions that make people happy,” Persons said. “The best part about being here is that you can impact a kid’s life and know it made a difference. I grew up in some tough situations, and if I can make it out succeed, then anyone can.”
Contact Jack Williams with any comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jackgwilliams.