One year removed from winning the Mid-American Conference West Division women’s basketball title with a 13-5 conference record (17-14 overall), Ball State was picked to finish second in the division in the MAC coaches’ preseason poll.

Head coach Brady Sallee doesn’t mind the results of the poll, as the Cardinals pulled more first-place votes (8) than division favorite Eastern Michigan (4).

“I think those preseason polls are about as useful as wet toilet paper,” he said. “We don’t talk about them, whether we’re picked first, last, whatever.”

With Sallee at the helm, Ball State has three consecutive winning seasons and looks to make it four in 2015-16, with Sallee giving all the credit to the players.

“I learned a long time ago this level’s got very little to do with coaching,” he said. “Recruiting is big and being able to have really good players ... What separates people is the talent level that they’re able to put in their jerseys.”

Four returning players started at least 15 games last season—senior Nathalie Fontaine and juniors Jill Morrison, Renee Bennett and Calyn Hosea. 

Last season, senior Shelby Merder and sophomore Moriah Monaco appeared in all 31 games, averaging more than 15 minutes per game. While none of them are “drill-sergeant-type” leaders, Sallee said, several could step up and fill the role.

“I’ve always believed that leaders emerge,” Sallee said. “You can’t make them. We’ve got some natural candidates – Nathalie Fontaine, one of the best players to ever come through these doors, [and] Jill Morrison, an all-conference-level kid.”

Fontaine enters the season as Ball State’s sixth all-time leading scorer with 1,506 career points and fifth in the MAC in points (509), points per game (16.4) and field goal percentage (49.3 percent) last year.

“She’s got a chance to be the all-time leading scorer here if she has a good year,” Sallee said. “We don’t want her chasing that necessarily, but we think it can be a byproduct of her playing at a really high level. She’s a talent—a special kid. There’s no reason she’s not playing pro this time next year. She’s got that kind of talent.”

After the Cardinals’ 151-72 exhibition victory on Nov. 3, Morrison, who scored 11.4 points per game last season and finished fourth in the MAC by sinking 38 percent of her shots from beyond the arc, said the returners have collectively helped the underclassmen.

“I think our experienced players have really helped our new players adjust and learn that system quickly,” she said. “That’s going to help us in the long run. I think in the learning stages there’s definitely some things we can tighten up.”

A pair of underclassmen—freshman Carmen Grande and sophomore Brionna Simond—are looking to fill the open point guard spot, Sallee said.

“Between [Grande] and [Simond] I think, honestly, it can be a year of competition,” he said. “Whoever’s playing the best, we’re gonna put out there. But I think they’re both gonna play a ton of minutes for us.”

Overall, the Cardinals thrived on efficiency in 2014-15, finishing second in the MAC in field goal percentage (41.9 percent), third in free throw percentage (73.5 percent) and field goal percentage against (36.7 percent). 

Sallee said the problem is that the team's efficiency was often canceled out by the opposing team’s volume. Ball State was 10th in the MAC with a -2.7 rebounding margin, and its 63.8 defensive rebound percentage was dead last, resulting in 6.35 fewer shots per game than its opponents.

“We made it hard on ourselves last year because we didn’t have the number of possessions that the other team had,” Sallee said. “So we had to be that much more efficient."

Ball State opens the season on Nov. 13 at Charlotte and will play its home opener on Nov. 19 against Western Kentucky. Other non-conference highlights this season include a home game against Butler on Dec. 6 and two away games against Purdue on Dec. 13 and Evansville on Dec. 21.

Sallee said the Cardinals will be prepared for every game this season.

“We’re going to try to beat everybody’s brains out, and I’m assuming everybody’s going to try to beat our brains out,” he said. “It’s what this level is, and for us, we focus on who we are. It’s not who we play, it’s how we play.”