Just over 16 years ago, Ball State Cross Country captured its first Mid-American Conference Championship title under former head coach Sue Parks.
In the time since, Ball State has fallen in the rankings of the MAC. However, the program is making progress toward returning to its previous strength with the help of assistant distance coach Rachel McFarlane.
Entering her second year as coach of the Cardinals, McFarlane has helped the team improve upon its standing in the MAC. In 2018, Ball State placed 11th overall at the conference meet. With assistance from McFarlane, the Cardinals took sixth at the 2019 MAC Championships — their best finish at the conference meet since 2007.
When McFarlane was hired, she said, she had the goal to revive the success of seasons prior.
“Each year, we are going to get closer,” McFarlane said. “A goal of any program is to win. We are going to be competitive, and we are here to be in the mix.”
Staying motivated is key to McFarlane’s training plan. Every practice, she tells her runners to have a daily goal and think about how that will make them a better runner. The shared motivation of the team is what ultimately keeps the Cardinals committed to working hard in practices and giving it their all during races.
McFarlane has brought a renewed desire to compete. This year, the Cardinals have placed third or higher in four of their meets. Out of these races, Ball State finished first overall at its home meet, The Cardinal Classic, and placed third overall at the Spartan Classic, a meet hosted by nationally-ranked Michigan State.
“We can go to any race and know that we are better than other teams on the line and that we are working super hard,” McFarlane said. “We are still a better team, and each year we are going to get closer.”
The Cardinals’ performance at the MAC Championships highlights a turning point for the program. Along with the team performance, junior Cayla Eckenroth secured a Second-Team All-Conference finish by placing 11th overall with a time of 22:19.1. Eckenroth said it was good to finally have a breakout race and season to push her toward bigger and better things.
Eckenroth, in her third year at Ball State, is studying to become a secondary English teacher with the goal of also coaching cross country. Originally from Novi, Michigan, Eckenroth chose to run for Ball State due to the positive atmosphere created by the coaching staff and the other runners on the team.
Having dropped 30 seconds off of her previous personal best in the 6K during the 2019 season, Eckenroth credits her teammates as being her primary drive to improve. Fellow runners, seniors Maritza Rodriguez and Hannah Cummings, played a pivotal role in Eckenroth’s effort to get faster. Eckenroth said McFarlane has contributed positively to the new culture of the team as well.
“Coach McFarlane has helped us become more engaged in running,” Eckenroth said. “All of us on the team have checked in, and worked harder and have done more of the little things this season. We keep each other accountable to do the right thing.”
As the track and field season draws closer, Eckenroth will be an important runner for the Cardinals, as she will compete in the 3K, 5K and steeplechase. Eckenroth wants to transition her breakout performances from cross-country into the track season, as she said she hopes to score and PR in her races.
Both McFarlane and Eckenroth said they are excited about what the future holds for the cross-country and track and field teams. Whether it be a MAC title, a top finish at the NCAA Regional or an appearance at the National Championship, Ball State is always working toward improvement and success.
“We all want it more than we ever have,” Eckenroth said. “Every year, we grow stronger.”