As the clock winded down, realization set in.
After winning four of their final five games last regular season, the Cardinals’ search for their first conference title in program history ended in a 2-1 loss against Bowling Green. For the second time in three years, Ball State Soccer had lost the Mid-American Conference Championship game.
Four months later, head coach Josh Rife still has a sour taste in his mouth.
“I spent, and probably still spend, too much time thinking about that game,” Rife said. “That's what I love about the game — you can be a player or coach in this for a long time, and there's always things to learn and ways to adjust what you're doing.”
However, even after making the MAC Championship in last spring’s pandemic-abbreviated season, the Cardinals return to the field four months later with the same expectations — a MAC West Division title and a chance at the conference championship.
“I don’t take for granted what these young ladies do day in and day out,” Rife said. “They're a pretty self-sufficient group, which is really fortunate as a coach — to not feel like you're having to micromanage a ton of things.”
After its season opening 3-1 win against Valparaiso Aug. 22, Ball State has five more matches against non-conference opponents — including Purdue, Butler and Xavier — before MAC play begins.
“I don't want to make them bigger than they are,” Rife said. “I also want to keep them in their proper perspective — that they're going to be difficult games and tough teams.”
Having started 29 of 30 games over the past two seasons, senior midfielder Sammi Corcoran understands the significance of non-conference play. Non-conference play is important to Corcoran, she said, because it gives the Cardinals a chance to showcase their talent against quality opponents they don’t often face.
“Everyone has a common goal — we all want to win,” Corcoran said. “I think it's really important that we have our non-conference games against big teams so we can really show how we can compete with those kinds of teams.”
With 11 seniors and three graduate students on the roster, Ball State has multiple years of experience at every position. In addition to Corcoran, six of the Cardinals’ returnees started all 10 games last season.
“We put ourselves in positions to be tested and against really stiff competition,” Rife said. “I think, what better time than now to challenge ourselves like this, because I think we have a resilient group who's seen a lot, been through a lot and have a lot of minutes under their belts.”
Corcoran said last year's unconventional season will help prepare her and her teammates for this season’s schedule.
“We had a lot of outside variables we had to deal with, and we were still able to succeed,” Corocoran said. “I think it shows how we can persevere and get through. Hopefully, without as many outside variables this year, we will be able to do the same thing and hopefully reach that next step, which is the MAC Championship.”
The Cardinals’ senior class has had its fair share of opportunity in years past. When they were freshmen in 2018, they were a part of the program’s first championship appearance since 2013. After falling short again last spring, senior midfielder Tatiana Mason said she understands the importance of making every moment count this season.
“I think our class is in a special situation because we came in as freshmen and kind of had a big impact from the start,” Mason said. “Throughout the past three years, we’ve still kind of held that impact. The expectation is always to win a MAC championship.”
No matter what others may think, Rife said, he realizes the talent and potential the Cardinals possess.
“We're pretty laser-focused and have a goal that we're trying to reach,” Rife said. “Maybe other people might look and say, ‘Oh, look at what Ball State is doing.’ In that locker room and among our staff, I don't think it'll surprise us at all if we come out of non-conference with a lot of success, and that's the expectation.”
Contact Charleston Bowles with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @cbowles01.