Ball State University senior third baseman Jessie Ware had a feeling her team could compete with anyone on a national scale, but the Cardinals had yet to play against softball's elite this season.
But Ball State was given that exact chance Friday against No. 3 University of Missouri. Any questions about how good the Cardinals could be this season were answered as they defeated the host Tigers 2-1 to open play in the DeMarini Invitational with a bang.
"That win was key for us," said Ware, who scored a run in the victory. "We went into the game knowing that no one really thought we could win, but now we know that no matter what team is against us, we can do it."
Ball State coach Craig Nicholson said his team was strong in three critical areas against Missouri: great pitching, flawless defense and timely hitting.
The Cardinals got another complete game effort from senior ace Elizabeth Milian, who allowed just four hits and one earned run to the No. 3 team in the country. In the field, Ball State committed no errors, and at the plate, the Cardinals broke through in the top of the fourth.
Ware opened the inning for the Cardinals with a double, and she was plated with an RBI single to right field from senior Jen Reifschneider. Later, junior Kate Wilczynski brought in pinch runner Jackie Durment on a sacrifice bunt for the eventual game winner.
Milian said she was pleased with the defense in particular.
"It's great knowing that I have such a strong defense behind me," she said. "I don't even have to worry about it when a team like Missouri puts it in play practically every batter."
Nicholson said it all came together against the Tigers. The game set the bar especially high for the rest of the weekend.
"We played well in every facet of the game and did what we had to do to win the game," he said. "If we make a couple errors, don't pitch well, don't get some timely hitting, we're not going to win that game."
The win for Ball State snapped Missouri's 17-game winning streak and extended the Cardinals' winning streak to nine heading into their Friday nightcap against Northwestern University, who also received a vote in this week's top 25 poll.
Ball State was unable to carry over the momentum against Northwestern, however, which edged the Cardinals 3-2.
The Cardinals struck first with two runs in the top of the second, but that was all they could muster against the Wildcats. Senior Meredith Nash and freshman Alyssa Freiling each had RBIs for Ball State. The Cardinals had only two hits off Wildcats' starter Lauren Delaney, who had 12 strikeouts.
Audra Sanders (3-4) took the loss for the Cardinals; she allowed three runs — two earned — in three innings. Milian came on in relief in the top of the fourth, allowing no runs and striking out four.
"You kind of expect maybe a little bit of an emotional let down [after the Missouri win], but I think we played pretty well against Northwestern," Nicholson said. "They just hit a little better than we did and just did a little bit better job executing their offense in that game."
With two of its marquee games out of the way on the first night of action, Ball State's momentum was halted by snowy conditions the rest of the way.
The Cardinals' Saturday matchup against Mid-American Conference rival Eastern Michigan University was canceled due to snow, but Ball State was still able to play one game on the day.
Ball State shut out the University of Northern Colorado 5-0 in a game played indoors at Missouri's Devine Pavilion.
Milian pitched her eighth shutout of the season against the Bears to improve to 13-1 on the season. Ware went 3-for-4 with a triple and an RBI at the plate, and sophomore Amanda Montalto added a two-RBI double.
Ware said she felt her team was comfortable playing indoors because Ball State's preseason practices are held inside. Nicholson, however, didn't come away with a positive attitude about indoor softball.
"It's different. The lighting's different, the ground's different — it's just not softball to me," he said. "It's kind of weird to see."
Sunday's games — rematches with Northern Colorado and Missouri — were canceled due to snowy conditions as the games were not moved indoors.
Ball State, which is now 17-6 overall, next travels to the University of Dayton on Wednesday for a doubleheader.