Last season was a magical year for coach Kelly Packard and the Ball State University women's basketball team. Not only did the Cardinals run through the Mid-American Conference with a 14-2 record, but, for the first time in school history, they won the MAC Tournament. The result — an NCAA appearance and an upset victory over the Tennessee Lady Volunteers.
The encore begins Friday night on the road at Big Ten foe University of Michigan.
"We're not going to be given any credit on the scoreboard this year. We're going to have to work for every basket and rebound," Packard said. "My number one goal is to have these ladies walk away truly believing they had a good college athletic experience."
The road to victory won't be easy however. While the Cardinals return preseason MAC selections Danielle Gratton and Emily Maggert at the forward spots, they will be searching for someone to step into the void at guard after the departure of Porchia Green and Kiley Jarrett.
"Obviously, we lost three really good seniors last year [including guard/forward Dana Moorman]. We've got some big shoes to fill," senior guard Audrey McDonald said. "They probably won't be filled right away, but we're working towards it."
Green and Jarrett contributed more than 21 points a game for the Cardinals last year. They also played more than 34 minutes of action a game each.
"It's going to be different. This is a different team. It's going to be interesting," Gratton said. "We lost a lot of leadership. We - Emily, Audrey and myself - are going have to step up and be more vocal."
Hard work, sweat and determination are all going to be required to return the Cardinals to the 26-9 form from last season.
"None of that just developed last year. We quite honestly weren't very good in November and early December. We finished our nonconference schedule 7-6. People don't remember that as much, I do," Packard said. "We're going to have to do the same things: get experience early, stay healthy as a team when it comes to relationships and dynamics and stay healthy physically to be competitive for our long season."
Even the winningest coach in the sport's history came away impressed with the Ball State program last season.
"There's a lot of discipline," University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "There's obviously a reason why they are a good team. They're going to be prepared for any and all situations under Coach Packard."
The Cardinals won't have an easy schedule. The season starts on the road at Michigan. From there, Sun Belt Conference member Western Kentucky University comes to Worthen Arena Nov. 16, when the NCAA banner will be unveiled.
"We've talked about all the hype and we're so excited to get back into it," McDonald said. "We're excited to move on and show everyone this years team."
Mid-major powers North Dakota State University and Wisconsin-Green Bay will be a part of big road and home tests for Ball State in late November and early December before the MAC schedule gets in full swing after the first of the year.