With the Mid-American Conference tournament beginning this week, the Ball State softball team prepares to face an unfamiliar foe.

No. 5 Ball State (30-26, 14-10 MAC) will take on No. 4 Kent State (27-25, 15-9 MAC) in the opening round of the conference tournament. The last time the two conference opponents met? April 3, 2015, where Kent State won 7-3 in Muncie.

While the experienced Golden Flash lineup – who came into the MAC tournament as the No. 1 seed in 2016 and 2015 – may remember the meeting, only a few members of the Cardinals young lineup were even in college at that time.

MAC Tournament Seedings

No. 1 - Central Michigan (36-13, 18-5 MAC)

No. 2 - Ohio (36-14, 17-7 MAC)

No. 3 - Northern Illinois (30-19, 15-9 MAC)

No. 4 - Kent State (27-25, 15-9 MAC)

No. 5 - Ball State (30-26, 14-10 MAC)

No. 6 - Miami (14-10, 29-22 MAC)

No. 7 - Akron (26-28, 12-12 MAC)

No. 8 - Western Michigan (23-27, 11-13 MAC)

But, having a strong underclassman is something that head coach Megan Ciolli Bartlett said could prove to be helpful in a tournament setting.

“I don’t know that they know the enormity of what could happen if we win this thing, if they’ve really wrapped their brain around it yet,” Ciolli Bartlett said. “That’s kind of the beauty of young players, sometimes they don’t even understand how difficult the proposition is … We use it as motivation and it’ll be an exciting week, that’s for sure.”

A young lineup, that includes five underclassmen who've seen action in at least 45 games this season, hasn’t dampened Ball State’s ability to compete within the MAC either. 

Freshman right-handed pitchers Alyssa Rothwell and Darcie Huber have been giving opposing hitters problems all year.

Rothwell has held opponents to a .191 opponents’ batting average while maintaining a 2.46 ERA, good for second and sixth in the MAC, respectively, while Huber’s 2.25 ERA ranks fourth in the MAC.

The two, capped off with junior pitcher Carolyn Wilmes, whose 6.57 strikeouts per game puts her at fifth in the MAC, right behind Rothwell who is averaging 6.8, are the key to the Cardinals success this weekend.

“We need to go with some of our pitchers on the mound hoping we get ahead in counts,” Ciolli Bartlett said. “Opposing hitter end up chasing your best pitch … I think anytime we can do that, our pitching staff is going to be successful.”

The Cardinals pitching staff will be taxed with facing Kent State sophomore Bailey Brownfield whose .360 batting average is among the best in the conference.

Still, Kent State’s .233 team batting average is last in the MAC, while Ball State is eighth averaging a .261 team batting average with senior outfielder Rachel Houck leading the Cardinals in batting average (.317), hits (59), home runs (13) and RBIs (34).

While Ball State hasn’t faced off against Kent State head-to-head in the past two seasons, Bartlett said they’ve prepared.

“We’ve watched a lot of film, studied their stat lines and tried to talk to as many people as we can that have played them previously,” Ciolli Bartlett said. “You just try to do your due-diligence and hope when it comes game time, the kids perform the way they’re supposed to and that takes care of itself.”

The unfamiliarity of opponents stops in the first round for the Cardinals, for the most part. The only other team that Ball State has not played this season is tournament host, Akron (26-28, 12-12 MAC).

Ball State and Kent State will open the tournament at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow, with the winner facing either No. 1 Central Michigan (36-13, 18-5 MAC) or No. 8 Western Michigan (23-27, 11-13 MAC), the last two teams the Cardinals played this season. While the Cardinals were 1-5 during their final six-game stretch of the season, they are 7-1 overall against all other tournament teams this year.

For Ciolli Bartlett and the rest of the team, the goal entering the tournament is simple, they want to win.

“Of course our goal is to win the whole thing,” Ciolli Bartlett said. “That has been a goal we’ve probably talked about on a daily basis.”

Even with the late-season skid that the Cardinals had, the tournament field is balanced. Only four conference games separate the top six seeds.

Because of the even playing field, Ciolli Bartlett knows that it’s going to come down to who competes come tournament time.

“I feel like there’s a lot of Power 5 conferences that you get a more traditional seeding and results you can predict a little bit,” Ciolli Bartlett said. “But the MAC, it’s balanced and it’s the toughest team that’s going to win.”

The tournament starts tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. in the newly renovated Firestone Stadium in Akron, Ohio. It will conclude on Saturday following the championship game scheduled at 1 p.m.