Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect a score that was originally reported wrong.
In the middle of its season, Ball State softball was in a slump and sat in seventh place in the Mid-American Conference (MAC). To make the tournament, you have to be in the top four.
Cardinal fans might have wondered, can this team pull themselves out of their funk?
This weekend, that question was answered. After bouncing back and defeating Akron in their final regular season series, the Cardinals clinched a tournament berth.
“I’m really proud of them for pulling it together and really fighting through a lot of things,” head coach Lacy Schurr said. “[I’m] really excited to see us get some rest and go into the MAC tournament ready to go.”
Going into Saturday, the Cardinals and Zips (26-22, 14-12 MAC) were No. 4 and No. 5 in the MAC. With similar records, this would be the decider.
Ball State (27-24, 17-12 MAC) won the opener 6-1, and the Cardinals literally started off with a slam. Leadoff hitter, senior Haley Wynn, crushed a solo shot to center field. Then a few batters later, redshirt sophomore McKayla Timmons launched a solo home run.
The Cardinals ended the game with six solo shots, a new program record.
“That was probably one of the craziest things I've ever seen, experienced, or been a part of,” Wynn said. “That was crazy.”
But she did not stop at one. Later in the third inning, she launched another solo home run.
“The day before, we prepped a lot with the rise ball,” she said. “Personally, that's one of my favorite pitches to see. So I was just taking it and going with it. I'm like, I know what I want. And I was very confident.”
Besides Wynn and Timmons, three other Cardinals were added to the list. Those included redshirt freshman McKenna Mulholland, junior Samantha-Jo Mata, and sophomore Kaitlyn Gibson.
“We knew how much this game meant,” Mulholland said. “Everything was like meatballs to us, and I think we just wanted to score more.”
But game two was different. The Cardinals tallied five hits but fell 2-1.
“They had a really good pitching game plan against our hitters,” Schurr said. “They kept us off balance and we never really made an adjustment to the off-speed pitch.”
Akron's starter, redshirt senior Olivia Otani, completed the game and threw 100-pitches. She struck out three Cardinal batters. The loss made Sunday’s game a big component for the final standings of the MAC. Schurr noticed that there was a different atmosphere around the team after the defeat.
“You know, we knew we needed to come in and it was gonna be a dogfight,” she said. “[Akron] was gonna throw up their best against us, and we just needed to match that and be one better. And we were.”
The Cardinals came into the game with a quick start as Mulholland drilled an RBI double. This was a precursor for the rest of the contest as Mulholland finished the 5-4 victory going four-for-four with three RBIs.
“Going off of [Saturday], I worked myself deep in the counts, and I just wanted to make an adjustment today,” Mulholland said. “I was attacking early in the count. Once I had the first two [hits], I kind of was like, okay, I'm probably gonna see some changeups and I need to be patient.”
Mulholland’s efforts were noticed by Schurr, and she was not surprised.
“We've asked her to just step in at shortstop for the past couple of weeks,” she said. “And she's just such a gamer. She loves the pressure and has a lot of emotion. She's done this for us at some key moments.“
But it wasn’t just Mulholland’s offense. Ball State looked like a well-oiled machine from every aspect. On the mound, the Cardinals allowed eight hits and struck out seven. Sophomore Angelina Russo led the team with five strikeouts.
On offense, the Cardinals finished with nine hits and walked four times. With this being the final regular season game, Schurr believes the Cardinals matched their expectations.
“At the end of the day, we don't expect our team to be perfect,” she said. “But we expect them to step up in big situations and that's what they did. You know, when we needed to execute pitches, we executed pitches and when we needed to score runs, we scored runs.”
Now that the Cardinals are officially in the conference tournament, Schurr believes that watching how the rest of the conference unfolds will be interesting.
“It'll be interesting just to watch people play this weekend,” she said. “But you know, we've got a job to do in terms of getting ourselves you know, even a little bit better. So, I mean, no matter who we're gonna see, we're definitely going to be fired up and ready to go.”
Ball State will have the week off to rest and get prepared for the tournament. The regular season will be officially over this weekend, and brackets will be set. As of right now, Ball State will be No. 4 in the tournament.
Contact Zach Carter with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @ZachCarter85.