Ball State soccer drops emotional MAC quarterfinal to Northern Illinois
Tears flowed down the faces of Ball State soccer players, and some dropped to their knees in despair. Meanwhile, Northern Illinois' players rushed the goal, jumping with joy, and a single high-pitched squeal came from the corner of the field.
The Cardinals (14-3-4, 9-1-1 MAC) had just been eliminated from the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament in penalty kicks for the second year in a row, and one thing was clear.
It might just be a game, but the emotions are real.
"I love those kids to death," head coach Craig Roberts said. "I've been with them for four years and seen them mature as not only soccer players, but as people. ... It's very hard for me to let go of those players when they've been so impactful and so meaningful to me as a person."
During the game, however, anger reared its ugly head. Ball State and Northern Illinois combined for 30 fouls, and there were several hard-contact plays that could have been called.
Roberts said he didn't want to comment on the officials, instead placing the blame on missed opportunities.
The Cardinals were still calm throughout the game, though. After all, they held a 17-5 shot advantage and took nine corner kicks to just one by the Huskies. Even when mistakes were made, Ball State was confident and its players were owning their mistakes.
"My bad," White yelled up to her teammates after an errant pass in the second half.
But in the 108th minute, a sense of confidence seemed to come over Northern Illinois. Earlier, they had been yelling at each other, frustrated with blown defensive assignments that led to Ball State shots. The Huskies, however, had only given up one goal and scored on their only shot on goal. Two more minutes and they would force a shootout, a better result than most would give the eighth-best team in the MAC against the regular season champion.
"We don't give up now," Huskies goalkeeper MacKenzie Lee yelled to her teammates. "What do we say?"
Ball State fans had seen a similar result the year before, when Akron forced a 0-0 tie and won after a shootout. Lee also had six saves, while Ball State goalkeeper Alyssa Heintschel didn't have any.
But maybe the most nervous fan at the Briner Sports Complex was the man in the Northern Illinois sweatshirt, standing near the corner of the field talking to athletic director Mark Sandy.
Sandy introduced himself to the man during overtime. Turns out, he was talking to MacKenzie Lee's father, Brad.
Brad had been standing on the narrow concrete strip that separates the artificial turf field and the grass next to it, but he took a step back with each penalty shot, pacing back and forth.
"You just hope she does her best, and you always want the best for your kids, right?" he said.
With NIU leading 3-2 in penalty kicks, Heintschel dove to her right, knocking down the shot.
"Let's go! Let's win right now!" Heintschel said as she ran toward her teammates.
On the next shot, sophomore midfielder Paula Guerrero tied it up, 3-3. Again, Guerrero and her teammates looked like they caught their second wind. And as the Cardinals advanced, Brad broke his silence.
"Move your feet!"
The second he opened his mouth, his other daughter chastised him on the sideline.
"Dad, you can't do that."
MacKenzie reached down for her water bottle, pretending she didn't hear — but she could.
"It's hard to drown someone out like that," she said with a laugh. "He's always been on the sideline for all of my games and he's always so supportive. My parents, both of them, and my sister came out and her husband — my family is always there to support me and backing me up."
Heintschel lined up in goal, with Northern Illinois senior Haley Cummings set to kick. Heintschel dove to her left with the kick, but Cummings placed the ball perfectly. It went just past Heintschel's outstretched fingertips and clipped the inside of the post for a 4-3 lead.
That put MacKenzie back in goal, and whether she took her father's advice or not , she knew he would be there, win or lose.
"My dad and I have a good relationship so it kind of relaxed me a little more," she said. "Kind of took the tension off the game for sure."
Freshman defender Yela Zuswiler lined up and took her best shot. It wasn't a bad shot by any means, but MacKenzie guessed right, diving to stop the ball and seal the win.
When she stopped the ball, a couple of Ball State players dropped to their knees in anguish — but a high-pitched squeal escaped Brad.
Whether the loss ends Ball State's season has yet to be seen. Before the game Oct. 29, the Cardinals were ranked 42nd in the NCAA RPI rankings, but it's unclear how far they will drop with the loss. Sixty-four teams make the tournament, but the only time a MAC school has received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament was in 2012.
Waiting to find out about an unlikely bid, Roberts said, is frustrating for a team that only lost three games in the regular season.
"Unless the NCAA sees that, as far as an option to recognize the most consistent team, that won't change," Roberts said. "That's the rules of the game so we have to live with those."