Despite numerous accomplishments heading into his 18th season as head coach of Ball State Baseball, reigning Mid-American Conference (MAC) Coach of the Year Rich Maloney has never made an NCAA Regionals appearance at Ball State. The last time the Cardinals achieved that mark was in 2006 when Maloney was manning the Wolverines at the University of Michigan in the same tournament.
Across two runs, 1996-2002 and 2013-present, Maloney has done it all in the red and white. He is the winningest coach in the program’s history, a four-time MAC Coach of the Year and has led the Cardinals to five regular season conference championships. However, Ball State has finished second in the conference standings and/or lost in the MAC Championship Tournament every year since 2018, not including 2020 when the season was canceled due to COVID-19.
Though Maloney said 2022’s 40-win season was “tremendous,” the Cardinals still didn’t achieve the goal they’ve been working toward for 17 years.
“It's been a joy, but you always want to go farther, right? No doubt about that,” Maloney said. “And I want it desperately for the kids. I want to see them have that moment because I've been there four times [at Michigan], I know what it's like. Obviously, I want to get there, ain't no doubt about that, but I want them to experience it.”
And “the kids” desperately want it too.
“I don't think it's been a lack of talent, I think it's just executing the right pitch at the right time, getting a timely hit and just focusing on every single at-bat and every inning because it all adds up,” junior pitcher Ryan Brown said. “Last year, we were so close, and we just needed to win one more game, and it kind of just flashed before our eyes.”
Brown won MAC Freshman Pitcher of the Year in 2022 after posting a 2.14 earned run average (ERA), allowing a .157 batting average to opposing hitters and striking out 65 in 46 and one-third innings.
Going into 2023, Brown has been named the No. 49 prospect in Division-I baseball, the only person in the Top 100 from a mid-major school, and with 2022 MAC Pitcher of the Year Tyler Schwietzer now suiting up in the Chicago White Sox’s farm system, Brown expects to go from reliever to starter this season.
Brown said the loss in the MAC Championship Tournament Championship Game was “devastating,” though he said that makes the Cardinals want an NCAA Regionals appearance even more.
“Last year, we were there, we were expecting to win that tournament,” junior relief pitcher Sam Klein said. “We win those first games, and we're expecting that’s going to be us with a trophy at the end, and then having that taken away from us, we didn’t perform as we should have, things didn’t go how we wanted them to. Knowing that, it's just that little difference we have to make this year, [and] we got to be able to just get past that challenge. We have a strong team this year that has the skills and capabilities of last year and more in some aspects, we just have to use that to kind of get over that hill.”
Like Brown and many Cardinals in 2022, last season was successful for Klein, who was a All-MAC First Team relief pitcher. He has been named a Preseason Third Team All-American going into 2023, and this season could be his last as a Cardinal, so making it past the MAC Championship means a bit more to Klein.
“I never had a senior day or last game in high school [because of COVID-19],” Klein said. “So I've never had that where it's really my last time, so [I’m] hoping to push that back a little bit this year and take it as far as we can.”
The end of one season and the beginning of another always means turnover in college athletics. Players leave the program to go somewhere else, get drafted or just run out of eligibility, while other players are recruited to join teams out of high school or transfer from other universities.
From 2022 to 2023, the turnover within Ball State was significant.
Aside from losing the best pitcher on staff in Schweitzer, other key Cardinals losses include All-MAC First Team outfielder Zach Cole, who was drafted by the Houston Astros, All-MAC First Team first baseman Trenton Quartermaine and All-MAC Second Team outfielder Amir Wright, who were both in their final year of eligibility last season. However, Maloney said the mixing of veterans and new players has been seamless in the offseason, and he felt the Cardinals returned a strong nucleus and added on to that with some of their additions.
“We lost some guys, but we're filling those spots with guys who have been a part of the program. I've seen what it's like to compete for championships,” graduate student third baseman Ryan Peltier said. “They know what to expect when their names are called, and they're ready for the challenge. That's just how we do it every year. People fill roles, and that's why we're so successful here as a program. The guys who fill those roles understand what they're playing for.”
In 2022, Peltier won MAC Defensive Player of the Year and was the first Cardinal to win the Rawlings Gold Glove for third base in the NCAA. Heading into 2023, Peltier joins Klein as a Third Team All-American and hopes to step into an increased leadership role in his last season at Ball State.
Peltier said success for him is all about mindset, and it’s one he had to learn after getting off to a self-proclaimed slow start in 2022.
“It's just not making it about yourself,” Peltier said. “I kind of asked myself, ‘How can I help the team win today?’ Whether that's on the defensive end or that's driving in one run [or] two runs, moving runners or drawing walks and trying to get on base as much as I can. I try not to put too much pressure on myself.”
For Peltier, making the NCAA Regionals is as much about Maloney as it is about himself or his teammates. He said he’s seen how much the 29-year head coach has put into Ball State, and he said it would mean a lot to him to be able to achieve their goal for Maloney.
Players and coaches alike talked about the importance of a strong culture and of being together as a team. Peltier said the Cardinals have great chemistry because they have to remember why they play the game and that’s to have fun and win games. He said if someone is too hard on themselves or they’re being selfish, that spreads and produces negative results.
Maloney said one way he and the coaching staff have established culture and pushed the players to compete in all aspects this offseason is by splitting the roster into four teams in practice and running competitions for three or four days. In the end, the winning team is served a filet mignon dinner, while the other three teams are served hot dogs and mac and cheese.
“I think what we do is very beneficial to how we do [it],” sophomore Hunter Dobbins said. “Everything we've done this year, I just feel like there's nothing where I look back, and I’m like ‘Wow, why are we doing this?’ Everything we've done has a reason to it.”
As a result of an in-team vote, Dobbins was elected/chosen as the hardest worker on the Cardinals. While Dobbins only played in 29 of the 59 total games in 2022, missing time with a hand injury, Dobbins said Maloney told him through his play and work ethic last season, he earned respect from his teammates, coaches and opponents across Division I baseball.
“I just always want to try my hardest,” Dobbins said. “So, it's cool, I'm trying to practice with as many teammates that I can because I'm not just trying to do it on my own. I'm trying to have everybody do what I'm doing. I want everybody to work real hard.”
Dobbins said his hand is fully healed, and because of this, he’ll be playing more of his natural and preferred position, catcher, though he said he’ll also occasionally play outfield this season. Last season he was mostly a designated hitter (DH), where he didn’t have to go through the physical toll that comes behind the plate but was still able to contribute with the bat. He said being able to catch should help him succeed on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, as he feels he’ll be able to focus more intensively on the game than he did as a DH.
Dobbins said Maloney has been vocal to him about starting to become a bigger leader, as he’ll still be in the program after this season, whereas current leaders like Peltier and senior Adam Tellier likely won’t be. A way he has begun to do so is often after practices he will invite a handful of teammates to stay after and hit off the pitching machine with him to get extra repetitions in, and he’s seeing more and more teammates start to buy in.
“We've just been working a lot harder. [We’ve] had more 5 a.m. [practices], and everything has been rooted around trying to make it farther than what we did,” Dobbins said. “We all know that we had a good team last year … All we're doing this year is trying to make sure that we can stay consistent and win those games right there. We were one game away.”
Peltier said Maloney talks to the Cardinals every day about “winning the freebie war,” focusing on preventing mental errors and making sure their opponent is earning everything they get. Dobbins said another thing Ball State needs to keep in mind is to never let off the gas.
“We've meshed every year, but this year just seems like we all have the same goal in mind, and we all have the same idea of what we want to do,” Brown said. “It just seems like this year we could do something really cool.”
Maloney said the hard-working and competitive culture at Ball State has been forged through winning and good character. He feels the program has established a good foundation, as he has never had a losing record in a full season at Ball State.
He said he doesn’t think there’s anything the Cardinals need to change heading into the 2023 season in order to be successful, rather, it’s more about staying the course and eventually, they’ll reach the goal that’s escaped Ball State since those suiting up were in elementary school.
“I like where we’re at,” Maloney said. “I like the group. I believe in the group. The guys believe in each other. Our culture is great. We're knocking it out in the classroom, we're knocking out community service, knocking it out on the playing field. You just gotta keep knocking at the door [and] knocking at the door, and someday you’ll break through.”
The Cardinals open up their season with a four-game series Feb. 17-19 at Charlotte, kicking things off with game one at 3 p.m. on the 17th.