“Five points better,” Brady Sallee, Ball State Women’s Basketball head coach, said.
“Five points better,” Anna Clephane, redshirt senior, said.
“Five points better,” Annie Rauch, senior, said.
“Five points better,” Ally Becki, sophomore, said.
It’s the mantra Ball State’s coaching staff and players alike have been repeating throughout the offseason.
“It’s almost an everyday thing,” Becki said. “We have t-shirts, it’s in our locker room, and I think getting that put in our heads and wanting to compete every day for it [is good]. I know some of the newcomers don’t know what it was like, but we can speak for some of the returners, and having that feeling after that loss, is heartbreaking. It sucks but we have to get over it now.”
When time expired and the buzzer sounded in Cleveland, Ohio, at the end of the championship game of the 2022 Women’s Basketball Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament, the scoreboard read 79-75.
As the Buffalo Bulls cut down the nets and punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, the Ball State Cardinals were left heartbroken and thinking of what could have been.
In the past, Sallee has made a point not to dwell on losses. This one was different.
“I think that hits a little deeper when you put it into an actual point perspective, and if it were just five points, then that’s a whole championship,” Clephane said. “I think we’ve made that apply to more than just five points, it’s in everything. It’s in that defensive slide, it’s in that hand-off, it’s in that relationship off the court, it’s being a little better in every aspect of our team, not just the scoring.”
In the offseason, Sallee said he has rewatched the MAC Championship loss over and over again, wanting to use the heartbreak of a runner-up finish to propel Ball State towards success.
He said there were about three plays that cost them the game, and those mistakes shouldn’t have happened, adding that the loss was slightly self-inflicted and came down to communication and execution errors.
In a recent preseason coaches poll and All-MAC teams announcement, Ball State is projected to finish second in the conference in 2022-23, receiving one of 12 votes to finish first. The Cardinals received three of 12 votes to win the MAC Championship Tournament.
For the upcoming campaign, the Cardinals return seven players from the 2021-22 season, while adding five.
Some are coming off a successful individual season, such as Becki, who was named to the MAC All-Third Team and MAC All-Freshman Team in 2021-22 and has been predicted to earn MAC All-First Team honors in 2022-23. Some are staring down the task of playing in their first ever collegiate-level sporting event.
Some are returning from a career-threatening injury.
Clephane wasn’t on the court with the Cardinals when they made their run to the MAC Championship game. Instead, she was sitting courtside wearing a knee brace.
Jan. 9, against Kent State University, Clephane tore her ACL and meniscus, sidelining her for the rest of the season.
“It was really tough mentally, it was really tough physically,” Clephane said. “I was in the best shape of my life, and to get that taken from me and gaining back 20 pounds, having to work through that, has been really, really hard.”
Clephane tore her ACL her freshman year at Ball State as well. She said having gone through the rehab process mentally and physically before helped her and hurt her at the same time, as she was familiar with the tasks but also knew how much work had to be done.
Clephane knows her time as a Cardinal is limited. Not only is she coming off the second major injury of her collegiate career, but this is her final year of eligibility.
“Last time I had a torn ACL, it almost took an entire season to get back to where I was, and that can’t be it anymore. I don’t have a whole season to waste,” Clephane said. “I’ve been getting myself in the mindset to get back to where I know I can be as quick as possible without risking anything, so it’s been a battle. Each day is a little different.”
When Clephane was officially released for practice, she said she was a little tentative at first. However, she remembered stepping on the court and catching herself off guard as she went full speed ahead right out of the gate.
That approach is indicative of her approach to the 2022-23 campaign in general.
“Anything I got left is getting poured into this season, whatever I have left you're going to see it on the court,” Clephane said. “I think that’s huge for me, and that means more than any injury for me.”
Along with Clephane, senior Estel Puiggros tore her ACL last season as well. However, she did so in the second round of the MAC Championship Tournament, a win against the No. 1 seed University of Toledo.
Sallee said there is no goal or set timetable for Clephane and Puiggros’ respective returns. He said while Clephane has been cleared to practice and Puiggros isn’t quite there yet, their return to in-game action is dependent on how they feel physically and mentally.
Sallee finished by saying when they return, it’ll be “like Christmas early.”
An impressive class
Freshman Hana Mühl, freshman Ana Barreto, senior Sydney Shafer, freshman Sydney Bolden and sophomore Alex Richard.
Sallee said this is one of the strongest recruiting classes he has ever had talent-wise. He said oftentimes, he is excited about a class on paper, but once they come to Ball State, his expectations are dampened. This season, he said he has been thrilled with all five newcomers.
Sallee said he believes the Cardinals are in a better place than they ever have been depth-wise going into the 2022-23 season, adding he doesn’t see a way where all 12 players don’t see the floor.
“I can’t remember a year where I’ve had a harder time coming up with, ‘Here’s gonna be my five, here’s gonna be my eight, here’s gonna be my nine,’” Sallee said. “You mention the Ally’s, the Marie’s [Kiefer] and the Thelma’s, but you move down the line, and there’s just not any drop off.”
Becki said the talent-level of the five newcomers has increased competition during practice.
“You can’t really have a bad day in practice because everyone is talented and everyone has their special role,” Becki said. “If you have a bad day in practice, it’s hard to come back because everyone is competing for a spot, and you just have to show up and be your best.”
Last season, Sallee introduced the Cardinals to a new offensive system, including going positionless, meaning no more labels such as guards, forwards and centers. All involved said it has been beneficial to have this system under their belt for a full season, with Sallee saying the coaching staff was able to specifically recruit to fit this system, and those who were with Ball State last season, know the system even better now.
Although Rauch is a senior, she still has one more year of eligibility and plans to use it. As someone who is in their fourth year in the program, Rauch is using her experience and leadership, vocal or not, to help the Cardinals’ new additions realize what’s expected of them and teach them the culture.
Clephane said while the offseason was dominated by her recovery process for her torn ACL, she also took significant time to get to know the five newcomers.
“It's been a ton of rehabbing and regaining my confidence and trying to find myself as a new player after the second surgery,” Clephane said. “It’s also been a lot of being with my new teammates and finding our identity as a team. It’s been really interesting, I mean, this team is something special, and I’m excited to let everyone see.”
Becki talked about how close the Cardinals are on and off the court, mentioning team trips to places like Indy Screampark. She said there are no cliqués on the team, and everyone seems to enjoy being around each other, allowing for trust to be built.
Rauch said creating these off the court bonds between teammates she has only known for months and those she has known for four years is what helps make the Cardinals successful on the court.
“It's just about making relationships that are going to last a lifetime, and being able to go out on the floor and do what we came here to do together, I think is a huge deal,” Rauch said. “It pulls on my heartstrings because we've been together for so long.”
Culture has been a large talking point for the Cardinals going back to last season, as Sallee and the players take great pride in what they’ve built behind the scenes. The biggest aspect of Ball State’s culture for Sallee is the distinction between newcomers and returners.
“I think they learned a really good lesson last year, that there is a difference in roles on a team, but there’s not a difference in status on a team,” Sallee said. “... This last year, we learned when you have a team without status and everybody will buy into their roles, there’s an impact made by everyone.”
The biggest goal of the season is clear: be “five points better” and win the MAC Championship. Clephane said the team not only wants to win the MAC Championship Tournament but also be MAC Regular Season Champions.
She said the Cardinals want to “win big” against the teams they know they should beat and beat or stay close with the teams they know will be tough. Clephane said it’s about creating the gap between the teams they know they’re better than and being consistent in their play, no matter the competition.
Sallee said some specific goals are to decrease turnovers, increase three-point proficiency and make more shots offensively. On defense, Sallee said he wants the team to play like a motivated unit.
Additionally, Sallee said another goal is for more of the players to lead vocally, as he feels almost every person on the team leads with their actions but he wants to see more out of those who are less vocal. Rauch, Ball State’s ‘Enforcer,’ said a goal for the Cardinals is to do a better job communicating.
Personally, Rauch hopes to shoot more threes and be more successful in those increased attempts. Becki’s biggest goal is to improve her assist/turnover ratio.
Before her injury, Clephane was averaging a career best 16.2 points per game. Now, Clephane said she wants to be on the MAC All-Team lists.
Her most important goal, however, is regaining her confidence.
“[I want to] regain my confidence and become the player I know that I can be,” Clephane said. “I want to show myself and everyone else that I’m still here and I can still do it. If that means that I’m dropping 15 a game, if that means I’m dropping a couple a game and helping my team out off the bench, I’m good with that. I just want to be able to contribute what I have to contribute.”
While Sallee said he believes the Cardinals have the talent and depth to achieve these goals, the effort and mentality has to be there for Ball State to achieve success. That’s why he’s pounded in “five points better” ad nauseam, that’s why he’s choosing to dwell on the heartbreak of last season.
“The buy-in to those things is going to be what’s critical,” Sallee said. “Everyone is capable. We don’t have any issues, we don’t have any shortcomings, we don’t have anything that way. It really becomes, how deeply are we really willing to buy-in to the things that we know matter?”
The Cardinals defeated Wheeling University 83-40 in an exhibition contest Nov. 1. Ball State’s first game of the regular season is set for 6 p.m. (7 p.m. CT) Nov. 7 when the Cardinals take on Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, Tennessee.