Hardship and friendship: How two players from the same hometown battled through adversity and grew closer

Cardinals senior defender Emily Simmons waves to the crowd as she's introduced before Ball State's home season opener against the Toledo Rockets March 4, 2021, at Briner Sports Complex. The Cardinals beat the Rockets 2-0. Jacob Musselman, DN
Cardinals senior defender Emily Simmons waves to the crowd as she's introduced before Ball State's home season opener against the Toledo Rockets March 4, 2021, at Briner Sports Complex. The Cardinals beat the Rockets 2-0. Jacob Musselman, DN

It’s the first game of the 2019 regular season. The Cardinals are preparing to face Eastern Illinois, and the public-address announcer calls out Melissa Diceman’s name as a starter — 11 months to the day after the then-junior midfielder tore her ACL. 

It was the then-junior midfielder’s first game back in exactly 11 months because of a torn ACL. Her teammate, then-junior defender Emily Simmons, couldn’t help but smile — not just because Diceman recovered, but because she was Simmons’ best friend on the Cardinals.

“I got super [excited],” Simmons said. “I was just very, very happy for her because I know, coming so far away from home, especially dealing with all of her injuries — it’s just huge for her to be able to step up, and earn a starting spot and get to actually play because her and I both came here for soccer.”

Diceman and Simmons grew up in Ontario, Canada, and the two briefly played together on the Toronto Blizzard, their club team, in 2017 before coming to Ball State. Both Diceman and Simmons have always been in love with soccer and had aspirations of playing in the United States.

Diceman came to the U.S. in 2017 with previous experience competing in her neighboring country, as the Blizzard would take road trips to Ohio and Indiana for tournaments, where she learned quite a bit about a different style of play.

“The opportunities and the showcases in the States were huge,” Diceman said. “The tournaments we played in were always so exciting. I always remember those trips and going on the bus. With the Blizzard, we played at a lot of university schools, and it was good to see how different the soccer was.” 

Simmons took a different path, as she played her freshman season at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2017 but said she didn’t fit the culture there. While she was named to the Horizon League All-Freshman Team, the Phoenix went 4-11-1 for the season, and she wanted an opportunity to win.

“I didn’t come all the way down here and separate from my family to be a normal college student,” Simmons said. “My goal was always to play soccer at a high level.”

After her freshman season, Simmons talked to Diceman and asked her questions about Ball State’s program. As the only Canadian player on the team at the time, Diceman said, she helped Simmons make her decision. Diceman was happy to have a fellow Canadian on the team.

“When Emily came, it was nice,” Diceman said. “We had our dorm rooms right beside each other. Driving home and having someone you can personally connect with from the same country was almost like a nice piece of home.”

As a transfer, Simmons said she came into the program with a chip on her shoulder and had to work harder than some of her fellow teammates to prove herself. 

Ball State head coach Josh Rife said he believes Simmons has grown into a better leader over time, as she always holds players accountable and helps her teammates in their best interests. 

“I think Emily has grown in being more intentional with players,” Rife said. “That goes such a long way when you are willing to invest in your teammates a little bit more. It just strengthens that bond amongst the group. She is willing to dig a little deeper and sacrifice more for her teammates.”  

When Diceman tore her ACL in 2018, she considered quitting soccer, but she credits Simmons for keeping her mind afloat and sticking with the process.

“She definitely saved me a couple of times with wanting to play soccer again,” Diceman said. “She was a huge support system. When I didn’t think I was ever going to play again, she told me to stick with it. She helped me with my treatment and was just huge.”

Three years later, in 2021, Simmons broke her foot and relied heavily on Diceman because she understood what it was like to be injured. Simmons had to miss the final games of her senior season but said how grateful she is for Diceman’s support.

“She has been the most supporting, helpful and loving person,” Simmons said. “I have relied on her so much through my injury because she just gets it. Everything I have gone through — she just understands, and I didn’t understand until I got injured.” 

Diceman said their injuries and different journeys to where they are today have given them perspective on the people they value the most.

“It definitely makes you take a step back and really value your friendship,” Diceman said. “No one really understands what an injury does to you at a high level when you are playing a sport you love. [Simmons] kind of realized what I went through and is super sympathetic about it — she just cares.” 

Rife said he sees the leadership in both of them from his perspective as head coach. He added that one of the most rewarding things about coaching is watching players develop not only their skill set, but their character too. Both Simmons and Diceman are graduating in the spring, and Rife said he has seen plenty of growth from them in their time at Ball State.

“There is definitely a blue-collar mentality to both of them,” Rife said. “They are two young ladies who show up and train hard and work hard. They both have different stories on how they got here, but they both revolve around hard work and working through adversity.”

Contact Ian Hansen with comments at imhansen@bsu.edu or on Twitter @ianh_2.

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