(left to right) Sophomore forward Blake Smith, freshman forward Annie Rauch and freshman guard Estel Puiggros celebrate on the sideline Feb. 19, 2020 at John E. Worthen Arena. Ball State won 97-89 against Northern Illinois. Katie Hawkins, DN
Ball State's togetherness mentality has propelled it to a comeback season.
With 10 more wins than last year, as of Feb. 25, the Cardinals’ previous record has become just that — the past.
A season ago, head coach Brady Sallee had the worst record of his coaching reign at Ball State — the worst since 2011-12 when the Cardinals finished 9-21 in Kelly Packard’s last season of her four-year coaching stint at the university.
But Sallee said the Cardinals’ newfound success this year stems from their ability to play as a team, not because they picked up an elite scorer in the offseason.
“For us, it’s kind of business as usual, but there’s a difference in our business as usual,” Sallee said. “Somewhere along the way, this team decided to connect personally and really focus on becoming a team at a high level.”
That somewhere may have been in the team meeting room over the summer. The Cardinals sat in silence when Sallee asked for their individual goals for the upcoming season. He dismissed the meeting and left his players to figure it out on their own.
Eventually, the players got together and wrote their goals on a piece of paper. They placed the paper on Sallee’s desk and left. To this day, the team has yet to revisit the goal sheet, and for Sallee, that’s a good thing.
“We’ve never had a follow-up meeting, and that sheet of paper has sat on my desk, and we’ve never revisited it,” Sallee said. “Right now, I think it is good that we didn’t because it might have put a ceiling on us, and I just don’t think this team has one.”
Realizing what a team’s potential and identity is can have a big impact on the season. For the Cardinals, embracing who they are as a team has been a big part of their success.
“I think our girls [have come] to grips with [the fact of] that is who we are,” Sallee said. “So, if that is who we are, let’s play to our strength. I think every team throughout the non-conference and the early conference are trying to establish identity. If you can wrap your arms around what that identity is and really do something with it, those are the teams that may be setting themselves apart.”
The Cardinals decided this year their identity is being the winning team — no matter who scores on a regular basis or how the work gets done, as long as they come out on top.
Junior forward Oshlynn Brown currently leads the team in scoring, averaging just more than 13 points per game, but the Cardinals have won six games in which Brown didn’t reach double figures in scoring. Brown is an intricate part of their offense, but it isn’t the end of the world when she doesn’t play well.
“With us this year, you don’t know who it is going to be,” graduate student guard Jasmin Samz said. “One through eight, you don’t who is going to show up. You know we’re going to show up defensively, and we’re going to give you a hard time and were going to be extremely tough, physical and fast.”
Trust is something that must happen at a high level to play with this mentality and mindset. The Cardinals have trust in each other that when someone comes off the bench, they are going to play just as hard as the next person.
“There is so much trust in everyone that we don’t really care who is scoring as long as it’s us,” Samz said. “It’s something that you don’t see very often, it’s something that we haven’t really had in a couple of years, but it comes with the offseason that we’ve had.”
The freshmen on the team learned that from the get-go, and the upperclassmen got them up to speed on the mentality quickly. Freshman forward Annie Rauch said the younger players’ impact this season has a lot to do with the mentorship of the upperclassmen.
“I think they know what it takes to win, and they see potential in the younger players like me and Sydney [Freeman],” Rauch said. “They just do what they can to get the best out of us.”
By changing their mindset, the Cardinals have also eliminated negativity. By doing that, the team has seen the benefits.
“We’re not reliant on one person,” Sallee said. “I think it frees [the team] up to just play the game. They don’t have the pressure of ‘I have to,’ and it’s worked for this group.”