_Evan Barnum-Steggerda is a senior journalism and telecommunications major and writes ‘Corner Kick’ for The Daily News. His views do not necessarily agree with those of the newspaper or Unified Student Media. Write to Evan at ejbarnumsteg@bsu.edu.
The foliage lining the Briner Sports Complex has started to change, meaning that fall and conference play are here.

For the first three years of coach Craig Robert’s tenure at Ball State the change in ambience brought Mid-American Conference foes that seemed to be on a higher echelon. But now, less than a week from Senior Night for Roberts’ first freshman class, the leaves epitomize the evolution of the Cardinals over the last four years.

In 2010 — Roberts’ first year at the helm — Ball State won a single MAC game. The next it won four and then five in 2012, never advancing past the first round of the conference tournament.

This season the Cardinals have continued their climb to prominence touting the MAC’s best overall record at 9-4-1 (4-2) — eclipsing last season’s win total (8) with five regular season games still on the schedule.

It’s not by accident. There has been a culture overhaul in Muncie, Ind.

“I’m just so proud of what we’ve created here,” said senior midfielder Maimme Morris, who hails from Worcestershire, England. “I never thought I’d fall in love with Muncie, and I have.”

Four years after being recruited to a team that had won two MAC games and lost its coach in 2009, Morris and the rest of the Cardinals “have absolutely no reason not to win the MAC.”

It is that influx in confidence that makes Ball State’s loss to league-leader Western Michigan (7-3-3, 5-0-1) a simple blemish, rather than an indicative mortal wound.

A win over the Broncos would have allowed the Cardinals to control their own destiny—against five teams all at or below .500 for the season — en route to winning the MAC regular season title and securing the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament. Now Ball State is in a five-way tie behind Western Michigan vying for a first round home match in the MAC tournament.

“We’re going to move forward [from the loss to Western Michigan], and learn from it,” Roberts said. “We’re still optimistic for the season and still are not afraid to play anybody in the MAC.”

Each of the three previous losses has served as a lesson for the young team that saw double-digit roster overturn in the past year. Ball State is 3-0 coming of losses and has outscored opponents 6-1.

Behind one of the top defenses nationally — and the best in the conference — Ball State has negated any chance for a drop-off to this point in the season, and has no plans of stopping.

“I just can’t leave here without winning [a MAC Championship],” Morris said.