Heading into their weekend series against Kent State, the Cardinals are currently running on their best start since 2013, on a seven game win streak and winning 14 of their last 15 games. Ball State also swept Akron in the Mid-American Conference opening series, out-scoring the Zips, 22-8, in three games.
What has really stood out on this season for the team is their depth they bring to the field. From freshman to seniors, every player has played some sort of role into the Cardinals success this year. The freshman class alone has accounted for 57 runs and eight home runs this season.
"It's a talented class that is well rounded, dynamic and does a lot of different things really well," head coach Megan Ciolli-Barteltt said. "You've got some kids that are powerful at the plate, that are fast and that are great pitchers. They have a lot of confidence and swag. "
The emergence of a strong freshman class has also pushed various returners to step into a role of leadership. Sophomore Stacy Payton was standing in their shoes last season and has now become a leader alongside the other 12 returners.
"This second year has definitely put me in more of a leadership position," Payton said. "We've been guiding them along, showing them the ropes and helping them get into their groove. Your first year everything is kind of new and your just rolling along and keeping up with a new pace. Second year, you know what it's like and your trying to be a role model for the new players.
Not only has Payton helped her young teammates find their way, but she has seen improvement in her own play as well. Sitting third in the batting line-up, Payton has knocked in 20 runs at 99 times at bat this season and holds a team tying best RBI of 28.
"I defiantly know I have a better approach to the game this season," Payton said. "Another year of learning has helped grow."
Alongside Payton, Ball State's batting unit has been lockdown. 35 games in, the team has batted in 186 runs connecting 224 times and knocking the ball over the fence on 34 separate occasions. Leading off that charge this season is junior Haley Dominique, who has stepped into the lead-off hitter role. In that position. she has stepped up to the plate 107 times for 38 hits, 28 runs and the second half the the team RBI best 28.
"It's a lot of fun when you get up first and you get a hit or make really hard contact," Dominique said. "It's a just a fun spot to be in the line-up and i feel like I've embraced it."
While the team's even ratio of freshman to returners has faired well, Bartlett said that the team's inexperience can sometimes show compared to last season. The graduated players from last season were the final members from Ball State's 2015 MAC Championship team and the only members with championship experience.
"They make young mistakes and I think that's a big difference," Bartlett said. "The last class had a lot of championship experience and they were solid and steady. That knew the game very well and knew what they were going to get. This bunch, we do a lot of things that are very special at the division I level, but then we do somethings that can make us go off the rails really quick. However, are leadership has proven that we can adjust really quickly from that."
After a dominating start to last weekend, the Cardinals well face an early challenge in Kent State on the road. The Golden Flashes were picked to finish second behind Ball State in the MAC regular season and championship polls. While Kent State is sitting just below .500 at 12-17, they've been challenged this season facing Penn State, No. 10 Louisiana, No. 21 Baylor, No. 10 LSU, No. 23 Minnesota, No. 12 Arizona, No. 19 James Madison, and No. 25 Michigan.
However, the mindset that has driven the team this season is not to worry about the name on the front, but the individual players they're going to face. As Bartlett puts it, we're going to play another Sally.
"We spend a lot of time educating the kids about the game and what smart softball is," Bartlett said. "As we try to teach them to see the game clearly, I think looking at our opponents as 'Sallys' is a nice part of that. South Carolina was a good test for us early in the season, and we didn't talk of them as a SEC team, but just about hitters and how to attack them. The more we can educate them that every athlete is going through the same struggles, the more that we can take those emotions and assumptions out of the game."
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