After being eliminated in the first round of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship softball tournament last season, Ball State softball went into the offseason preparing to build upon its successes.
But during that time, things changed.
The Cardinals lost a star player and their head coach in a matter of weeks. From that point, Ball State could only anxiously await what other dominoes would potentially fall.
“It's like the fear of the unknown,” graduate student infielder Haley Wynn said. “You didn't know what was gonna happen. None of us really knew.”
Russo Heads South
The first ample development to hit the Cardinals was junior pitcher Angelina Russo announcing she would not return to the program. Instead, she would be transferring to Abilene Christian University in Texas.
“I was kind of taken aback,” graduate student utility player Jazmyne Armendariz said. “I think everybody on the team was. But we love [Angelina] and we're happy for her.”
Over her two seasons in Muncie, she went 23-19 with a 3.51 ERA and 189 strikeouts. She was the first-ever Ball State softball player to be named the MAC Freshman Pitcher of the Year and the only player in Ball State history to throw a perfect game.
But stats alone don’t communicate how much her teammates appreciated her, leading them to respect her decision.
“We knew, ultimately, she had to do what was best for her,” Wynn said. “And we obviously support her no matter what, whether that was staying here or leaving.”
However, Russo’s absence may not be the wrecking ball that some Cardinal fans might expect. Armendariz is confident Ball State will be capable of clearing this hurdle when the Cardinals hit the field in the spring of 2024.
“Someone has to step in and fill her role, but I'm personally not concerned about it,” Armendariz said. “We have a really strong pitching staff that has a lot of experience.”
A New Direction
The following change happened almost a month after Russo decided to transfer. On July 5, Ball State announced head coach Lacy Schurr accepted the position of associate head coach at the University of Pittsburgh.
Schurr led the Cardinals to an 86-75 record over three seasons, and last season’s appearance at the MAC Championship Tournament was Ball State’s first appearance with Schurr at the helm.
When it was time to find the Cardinals’ new leader, Ball State Athletic Director Jeff Mitchell wanted someone that had “exceptional coaching ability” and that could grow the Cardinals as people along the way.
Enter Helen Peña.
“I targeted Coach Peña within the first day of the search, but it was a week before I called her,” Mitchell said via email. “I spent a lot of time reviewing interviews Coach Peña had given, watching YouTube videos of her teaching, talking to coaches who know her and had worked with her, [and] reviewing the success of programs where she had success.”
At the time, Peña was serving as the associate head coach at Middle Tennessee University, and when Mitchell contacted her, the two started to discuss the idea of bringing her in as Ball State softball’s head honcho.
“I wasn't looking to leave [Middle Tennessee] necessarily,” Peña said. “I had some Power-5 [conference programs] reach out to me and ask if I wanted to go and be an assistant. But I was really happy where I was at… As I went through the process of learning more about Jeff and his vision, and I got to meet some amazing people from the athletic department, everything just aligned.”
Before she made a final decision, Peña did her homework on what the program had in store. She looked at who would be returning, how those players performed and other factors such as what the town of Muncie had to offer.
When she decided to take the position, there was another factor. When Peña was with Middle Tennessee, she had many run-ins with her future team.
“I knew some of the [previous] coaches that were on staff and I just had great respect for them,” Peña said. “... Their constant appetite for new information, how to do things better and how to improve themselves so that they could improve their team.”
When she saw the Ball State coaches throughout the season, they would drop little tidbits of information about what made the university and program what it was.
“I got to know the ins and outs of this place and the people that are involved,” Peña said. “...The facilities are great, the school is great, but the people are what really drew me in. Each person that I met, I got more and more excited about the opportunity… It's not me versus you, it's all of us versus everyone outside of this.”
Before she started her coaching career, Peña played at the collegiate level at California Polytechnic State University. When she graduated, she led the program in seven statistical categories, including strikeouts (236), ERA (2.36), victories (28) and more. Her background as a pitcher is something she plans to interweave into the Ball State staff.
“It's my job to hire assistants who specialize in things that aren't my strength,” Peña said. “I'm definitely excited and looking forward to growing the [pitching] staff and bringing in some pieces that can complement one another.
Even though Peña was employed to be Ball State’s next coach, she wants to be more than that.
“My coaches definitely helped me on some of the worst days I've ever had as a person,” she said. “...And they could have easily just written me off. Even as a young coach, I felt it was my job to return that favor to my players now and in the future.”
Peña loves the technique of the sport. She could talk all day about biomechanics, spin rate, and how to attack in certain moments. But to perform well, she believes the most important plays are in the mental game.
“If you're not building them up as people, and they get into the hard moments of the game… they don't feel like they're strong enough to face adversity,” she said. “Then they're going to crumble and fail.”
On the evening of August 3rd, the newly hired head coach held a Zoom meeting with the team. Wynn had one word to describe her new leader; passionate.
“You could tell that she genuinely cares about each one of us individually,” Wynn said. “She wants to get to know us individually, and I think that's huge.”
When Armendariz jumped into the meeting, she could already tell Peña was the right fit as many faces lit up.
However, Armendariz was most drawn to Peña when she spoke about the importance of the Cardinals coming to her if they needed assistance with something outside of softball.
“Times are changing, and if you don't care about who your athlete is as a person above who they are as an athlete, then you can really lose that connection with your team,” Armendariz said. “...She wants to care about us as people and she wants to get to know us as people before athletes and I think that's a game changer for us and our culture.”
While the Cardinals celebrated last season’s achievement of making the MAC tournament, Peña made it clear that Ball State can do better and will use the momentum gained from that achievement as motivation.
“Now we understand that that’s not good enough,” Peña said. “We want more for ourselves and we have the people right here, right now to do it… Part of my job is creating that realization that they can do more, and then we just got to show the blueprints on how to get there.”
It’s not just Peña who believes the Cardinals can make a run. Her new players are right behind her in that ideology.
“I've never seen the team so excited to come back for fall,” Wynn said. “... Everyone seems very excited to get to work, and even the incoming freshmen have bought in.”
Even though Peña is months away from stepping on the field for Ball State's season opener, she has already set four goals for her time in Delaware County.
“The goal is to go to the postseason,” she said. “It’s to win a tournament, it’s to knock out Miami (OH), and it’s to be a threat when it comes to the [NCAA] Regional.”