A little under a year ago, the Cardinals were leaving DeKalb with their worst finish at the Mid-American Conference Championships in four years. The team excelled on vault, as they have traditionally, but faltered on beam and bars in the final stretch of the meet.
Meanwhile, host Northern Illinois walked away with its first MAC Championship in program history. This Sunday afternoon at the Convocation Center was an entirely different story. The Cardinals not only defeated the reigning MAC Champions on the road 195.800-195.750, but they set a program record for team overall score along the way.
"I'm so proud of this team to come on the home turf of NIU and be able to pull off a win, and it wasn't easy," head coach Joanna Saleem said. "They had to stay together throughout the entire meet and they never gave up. It was a really competitive day and I'm really proud of how they stayed together."
The win will have its place in the record books, but it came by only 0.050 points. For a handful of events, the Huskies were right behind the Cardinals, specifically on vault, which fell into a six-way tie for second. Northern also managed to win beam by 0.100 and tie Ball State on the vault.
However, Ball State seemed to be in its own zone throughout the meet, not focused on what its competitors were doing right across from them. The Cardinals remained consistent on their strengths on vault and floor and continued to improve on areas of adversity in bars and beam. The team set a season-high on bars (48.925) and beam (48.775).
The idea and mindset of remaining "unbothered" in any environment is what Saleem believes has led her squad to strong finishes meet after meet. While their win over NIU was the team's first MAC road win, the Cardinals have picked up victories in Colorado, Georiga, and Iowa.
"We really are about staying present," Saleem said. "You can only control what is right in front of you and our focus has been to come in and perform the gymnastics we've been training. I told them that they can't control what happens to them, but they can control how they handle that. When something didn't go quite perfect today, they chose to stay gritty and focused on where they wanted to go."
Amongst the many rotations revolving around the Convocation Center, Ball State was zeroed in on floor, popping a score of 49.150. While three Huskies were hot on her trail, junior Claudia Goyco continued to find ways to improve upon a nearly flawless routine. Her 9.925 finish Sunday set a career-high for the junior and tied for seventh place for a program-best finish on the floor.
She's focused and fierce on the floor as she "hits dem folks" in one corner and checks her pulse in another. However, she rarely remembers any of it. As soon as she beings, she's done. Occasionally, she'll remember moments from past performances, but not her most recent one.
"It's not that I don't remember doing anything," Goyco said. "I'll think I'm remembering my routine, but I'm remembering my routine from last week or from two years ago. After my routine today, I toled Arden [Hudson] I wish I hadn't stepped forward on my first pass and she told me that I had stuck it. It's a really, really weird and uncomfortable thing where you don't remember what just happened."
While she doesn't really like the short term memory loss after coming off the floor, Goyco said it's how she stays in the zone when she is performing. It's something that Saleem has pushed onto her team where it's only the gymnast and their routine.
"You can't really hear anything except your heartbeat and sometimes the music," Goyco said. "Then you just go on autopilot and you don't even know what you're doing. It's kind of like a trance. Joanna always talked about it and I didn't believe it until this year."
It may feel unnatural, but the focus and the idea of performing, and improving, a consistent routine has been working for the Cardinals. Slowly the team has seen a steady rise in almost all of their scores. Lately, floor has seemed to be Ball State's strongest routine, more than vault. However, Saleem believes all the team's scores will continue to rise as the season moves forward.
"They're getting out there and performing a little more and I think you're seeing that in the scores," Saleem said. "They're able to enjoy the experience and it's more natural for them to perform their gymnastics. Their gymnastics is just getting more confident."
Confidence continues to grow for the Cardinals, now knocking off one of the top squads in the MAC and heading into a showdown with North Carolina at home in a week. However, similar to Sunday, the Cardinals have little concern with what their opponent is doing. The confidence built over the past almost two months has Ball State in a position of faith in their craft.
"It goes back to us just reminding them that we can only control our gymnastics, how we can approach that and how we respond to the highs and the lows," Saleem said. "It doesn't matter who's out on the competition floor and it doesn't matter where you are. You need to approach it the same way. We need to make sure that the message is delivered the same way every practice and competition."
As for the consistent tread that the team hosting the MAC Championships usually placing pretty high, the Cardinals believe their resume speaks for its self. Home or on the road, Ball State has continued to find ways to pull out wins. In 20 days at Western Michigan, the Cardinals are planning to approach the meet with the same exact mentality and intensity they have since January.
"I think we've done a good job to show that home teams really don't matter this year," Goyco said. "It's anyone's game. You can be ranked first in the country going into MAC's and it doesn't matter because your performance at MAC's determines who wins. If there's home scoring, there's home scoring, but if you're the best, they can't argue that. I think we can perform really well at MAC's."