We all respond to pressure. A lyric echoed from Billy Joel’s 1982 hit, the feeling of having hundreds, or even thousands, of eyes upon you can trigger a sink-or-swim mentality.
Last season, Ball State Softball was selected in the preseason poll to win the Mid-American Conference, and the lone prediction began to mentally affect the team day in and day out. The pressure to be the best haunted them throughout the season, leading to an 0-2 finish at the MAC Tournament to end the season.
“We didn’t quite manage that target on our back as well as we wanted to,” head coach Megan Ciolli Bartlett said. “I think this year we’re trying to be more process-oriented … The expectation of this program every year is to win the Mid-American Conference or go into a regional and make some noise. However, it’s not something that gets talked about less and less and how we’re approaching each pitch and each at-bat. I think keeping a short memory and really having an impact on things we can control will be a really heavy emphasis for this team.”
As the team looks to embrace “the process” on the field, in the dugout, the Cardinals are working on their own collective gel. Last season, the team struggled to find a collective groove, but senior Haley Dominique said there is something different in the air in the early season this year.
“If you like the person next to you, you’re going to want them to do good, root for them, and you’re going to say, ‘Hey, get your head out of your butt,’” Dominique said. “You just want everyone to do well when you’re gelling and you all like each other.”
Notable Ball State Softball games this spring
Feb. 7 - at No. 10 Louisiana (Louisiana Classic)
Feb. 21 - v. Indiana State (Hilltopper Classic)
March. 6 - vs. Maryland (FIU Invitational)
March 14-15 - at No. 17 Michigan
March 28 - at Toledo (Defending MAC Champions)
April 15 - at Butler
While the team comradery might not be thought of as much of a game changer, Bartlett said it’s everything. She said the team had enough talent to win the conference last season, but the connection wasn’t all the way there. However, the leadership from the senior class is changing that.
“I think they are leading well, and they're loving their teammates well,” Bartlett said. “They're so proud of the program, and I think there's so much we're going to have so much valuable experience on the field and in leadership roles. They’ve all been four-year starters, and they’ve got to see three classes before them.”
The Cardinal senior class is led off by Dominique, Janae Hogg, Kennedy Wynn, Alyssa Rothwell and Gabby Magnifico, who have all left an impact for Ball State on the field. Hogg batted in a team-high 10 home runs and held a .613 slugging percentage last season, and Dominique led the team in hits (52) and runs (43). In the circle, Rothwell is coming into her final season with a MAC record 28 saves and is four shy of tying the NCAA record.
Rothwell will act as the elder in the circle, as the Cardinals return sophomore Tieghan Morio and welcome three new pitchers to the unit in freshmen Shelby Westbrook, Hannah Robinson and Deborah Jones. Morio said with a year under her belt, she’s learned more about her own mentality in the game.
“College softball is so much faster than high school softball, so coming into it, the game is expected to be faster. Then you start playing, and it's so different,” Morio said. “I learned a lot about myself just to be more focused and mental when I pitch. In high school, it was me when I pitched, but in college, I had to rely on my teammates, and it’s much more of a team game.”
Outside of the senior class, returners and rookies continue to build upon the Cardinals’ depth. Junior Stacy Payton led the Cardinals with 43 RBIs last season and tied for second in home runs with nine. Amidst the Cardinals’ talent at the plate, Bartlett said they will be led off by freshman Haley Wynn. Wynn holds the Wisconsin state records for hits in a season, career hits, career triples and career runs scored.
“From the minute that kid has showed up on campus, she has showed out,” Bartlett said. “She started as a leadoff from our first ball game, and this is just how well she performed. I don’t think there’s anybody in the program who isn’t excited about her being up there.”
With Haley Wynn leading off, Payton is expected to be second in the lineup, followed by Dominique. Bartlett said the decision to slide Dominique from leadoff to third came from Dominique’s power and consistency.
With the first pitch less than a week away down in Louisiana, the team looks for fulfillment to compliment success. Last season’s pressure to win took that away from time to time.
“I like winning, don't get me wrong, but I want this last season to be memorable and fulfilling,” Dominique said. “Obviously, it would be great to win MAC, but as long as we all feel fulfilled and we all feel like we put our 100 percent into it, I feel like that'll be a great season. I feel like the result will come from that.”
Contact Jack Williams with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jackgwilliams