Ball State Sports are officially back.
Football will be the first fall sport to resume action Nov. 4, but the rest of fall sports will have to wait until March to compete — except for women’s volleyball, which begins Jan. 22, and cross country, which the Mid-American Conference is still exploring options to start a season.
Ball State Athletic Director Beth Goetz said the process of ensuring a season for fall athletes has included “a lot of very thorough planning.”
“We've been working closely with the conference to finalize what those schedules look like and have tried to be strategic in aligning those with the NCAA championships but also be mindful of minimizing as much overlap as we can,” Goetz said. “This is so that we can ensure that our personnel can support those activities.”
Women’s volleyball will be the first fall sport to resume action after football. The MAC’s current volleyball plan is to have teams compete in 22 conference matches in a double-round-robin format over 10 weeks between Jan. 22 and March 27. Matches will take place Thursdays and Fridays, and schools will play each other twice in that two-day span at one site.
“It's going to be a lot different than what it was last season,” sophomore middle blocker Marie Plitt said. “I think that it'll be good to be able to play people back to back because we'll be able to see them that one night, and then the next night, we’ll kind of know what their team is going to look like.”
The conference tournament will also look different next season because only the top four teams will earn a berth instead of the typical eight. The tournament will take place Friday, April 2 and Saturday, April 3 at the site of the highest seed to determine the automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament.
“Every game truly does matter,” Plitt said. “It's going to be kind of tough not being able to play other teams because it's all conference, but I think that everyone is really excited to even just play. So, they're doing everything they can to just be able to play one game at a time. I don't think it's going to be an issue at all.”
Volleyball, along with every other fall sport, has held in-person practices. However, the Cardinals must follow health and safety precautions.
“We felt like we had the safety protocols in place that allowed teams to practice early,” Goetz said. “We're getting more information in and around COVID and the protocols that help ensure safety. Obviously, testing has become more accessible, and as scientists learn more about directives, we have more information that will make managing all of that a little bit easier.”
Plitt said the Cardinals must wear masks at all times and maintain social distancing during practices. Off the court, the team has held Zoom calls to build team chemistry.
Other than women’s volleyball, Ball State Soccer will wait an additional month before it plays its first game. Head coach Josh Rife said his team’s morale has been high, despite the delayed start.
“The season is coming now, and that's exciting, but it is still off in the distance, so you try to take it one day at a time,” Rife said.
The MAC’s soccer plan consists of 10 conference games in a divisional-double-round-robin format taking place over a six-week period between March 4 and April 11. Matches will occur Thursdays and Sundays, culminating in a single-match championship April 17 between the two divisional winners.
Rife said he is not concerned about only playing MAC West Division opponents.
“This is somewhat cliche,” Rife said, “But I think you just control what you can control. Yes, we’ll have a sample size of teams in our division for scouting purposes, but up until then, you just need to prepare yourself and your team the best you can and trust the process inside.”
Field hockey will have a similar layout to soccer. Teams will compete in 13 to 14 conference matches in a double-round-robin format over a seven-week period between March 12 and April 24. Each team will play 12 games against MAC opponents in addition to one or two against Bellarmine University, which will become a field hockey-exclusive MAC member in 2021.
Games will occur Fridays and Saturdays with teams playing each other twice over the weekend. There will be no conference tournament, and the regular-season champion will be granted an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
While the MAC has yet to decide if cross country teams will compete, many cross country athletes can participate in track and field during the indoor and outdoor seasons.
“Both the cross country and indoor track championships are scheduled in the spring, but we are having conversations with our coaches and some student-athletes to figure out how that would impact their training,” Goetz said. “We're still trying to explore what the best path is for those student-athletes.”
There are three other challenges Ball State and the MAC have yet to figure out: weather, overlap with winter/traditional spring sports and scheduling.
“For some [fall] sports, [weather] is going to be a challenge,” Goetz said. “I think the other thing is we'll have a lot going on at one time, but I think we can manage that. We're confident we can provide everybody the support they need, and, hopefully, that's the biggest challenge we face outside of COVID.”
For Ball State Football, which begins next month, home games will not be accessible to the general public. For the rest of fall sports taking place this spring, Ball State and the MAC are still undecided on whether fans will be allowed.
Goetz said although Ball State was not ready to begin fall sports when it was supposed to, it gives Ball State and the MAC the opportunity to provide student-athletes with a “more meaningful experience.”
Schedules for each sport have not been released yet — with the exception of field hockey, which was released Oct. 20 — but are expected to as each team’s season grows closer.